SPRINGFIELD – Despite Gov. Pat Quinn's contention that he took swift action after learning last summer of improper patronage hiring in his Department of Transportation, the head of the agency abruptly resigned Monday, just four months before the Democrat faces voters in a re-election bid.
Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider called it quits as Quinn's campaign against Republican challenger Bruce Rauner heats up, and just two weeks after a news report that Schneider's stepdaughter might have been among those whose hiring sidestepped the rules.
Quinn said Tuesday that Schneider resigned voluntarily, but the governor continues to fend off criticism of IDOT hiring after a news report and federal lawsuit claimed politically connected candidates were hired for state jobs that should have been protected from such considerations. He continues to fend off questions about a separate 2010 anti-violence program in Chicago, a $55 million initiative which a state audit found sloppy and in some cases, wasteful.
Rep. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove, ranking Republican on a House transportation committee, said Tuesday that Schneider's resignation was "damage-control" for a governor who continues to try to present himself as a reformer.
"He was an outsider for years, regularly lampooning good-ol'-boy, business-as-usual political hiring and political patronage," Sandack said. "So you start a career on the outside criticizing these types of measures and for his administration to be criticized for more of the same, I'm sure is highly embarrassing."
Through a spokeswoman, the 54-year-old Schneider, who made $150,228 a year and had a 25-year state government career, declined an interview with The Associated Press.
The Better Government Association reported in August 2013 that IDOT – during the tenure of Quinn and his predecessor, impeached and imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich – had hired as many as 200 people for positions that should have been publicly posted and had interviews conducted under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits hiring based on political considerations. Following up on that, anti-patronage activist Michael Shakman filed a lawsuit reiterating a call he issued in 2010 for an appointed monitor to verify that state government hiring is on the up-and-up.
At a stop Tuesday in suburban Chicago, Quinn declined to discuss specifics about Schneider's departure. He noted he had named as replacement the Veterans Affairs director, Erica Borggren, whom he said "will carry out the responsibilities of that job with excellence."
Quinn said he "wasn't happy" when he read about the promotion of Schneider's stepdaughter, Ashley Carpenter, and "we've acted accordingly," he said, without providing specifics. The BGA reported in June that Carpenter was promoted from a part-time clerical position in 2007 to a full-time "staff assistant," the jobs that have come under scrutiny.
Rauner issued a statement that said Quinn "commands a culture of patronage, corruption and cronyism in Illinois – a fact left unchanged by the resignation of one of his patronage lieutenants."
Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said he has the "sense" that IDOT and other agencies are still being run by holdovers of Blagojevich, who was impeached and removed from office in January 2009 and is serving a 14-year federal prison sentence for political corruption.
The patronage questions and the anti-violence program "are Blagojevich-esque activities from the Quinn administration, and it does lend itself to an appearance that either he is in charge of an administration that is run questionably or he's not in charge and asleep at the switch."
IDOT is not new to scandal. Two administrators resigned under a cloud in the last decade. A finance and administration director quit in 2005 after the AP reported that he gave a $500,000 contract to his brother-in-law's firm to power-wash state buildings, including salt storage domes. A personnel manager was fired in 2009 after the AP revealed he rushed through raises of as much as 31 percent to top managers in the days before Blagojevich's impeachment.