SPRINGFIELD – When a good-government campaigner sued Gov. Pat Quinn in April over political hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation, the administration responded that it had already taken action by reviewing and reclassifying jobs, which wouldn’t be subject to political considerations in the future.
But asked to explain what it did, the Quinn administration has refused to identify which jobs were redefined or how state officials determined whether anti-patronage rules applied – because it has made no final decisions.
The administration’s rejection of a Freedom of Information Act request from The Associated Press, citing a clause in the law that protects preliminary deliberations, contradicts its earlier declaration that it had reviewed job descriptions, reclassified posts, and fixed the political hiring practice after the release of a critical watchdog report last year.
The IDOT employment issue is one of several nagging Quinn as the Democrat portrays himself as a lifelong government reformer amid a stiff re-election battle against Republican businessman Bruce Rauner. Quinn said he has ended the clout-stained hiring practices of his predecessors and made government openness a hallmark of his administration, but Rauner and other critics question his commitment to it.
The FOIA denial contradicts the administration’s assertion that it fixed the problem in the spring. The administration also is refusing to disclose the guidelines the government has used for two decades to decide which jobs must be open to any applicant and which can be given to someone because of his or her political connections.
“Government agencies are not allowed to have secret rules or laws that they use to make decisions,” said Matt Topic, a government transparency lawyer with the Chicago firm of Loevy & Loevy who has represented government watchdog groups and others in FOIA cases.
Quinn’s office referred questions to the state personnel agency, which handles such reviews. Department of Central Management Services spokeswoman Alka Nayyar acknowledged in an emailed statement that the process had not been completed. She said records would not be released until the review is done, but would not say when that will be.
“Following CMS’s final review and determination, IDOT is currently finalizing the position descriptions you requested and will make them available to you as soon as possible,” she wrote, adding that getting the process “done right” is a “top priority.”
Neither Nayyar nor Quinn’s spokesman Grant Klinzman responded to questions about the contradiction in the administration’s statements.
The latest questions surrounding IDOT hiring surfaced when Michael Shakman, a Chicago attorney with a 40-year history of opposing illegal patronage hiring in Cook County, filed a federal court motion seeking an investigation and an independent monitor to oversee the agency’s employment practices.
He was responding to an August 2013 Better Government Association report that Quinn and his predecessor, the now-imprisoned Rod Blagojevich, had hired as many as 200 “staff assistants” without adhering to rules that prohibit political considerations and without properly offering the jobs to the general public.
The day Shakman filed his motion, an IDOT spokesman said the administration had already taken decisive action – 61 remaining staff-assistant positions were reviewed and officials determined 50 should have been protected from political considerations.
In May, the AP requested from IDOT and CMS documents showing which jobs had been reclassified as merit-based and open to all applicants. But the administration denied the requests, citing an exemption under the law for documents deemed preliminary, “in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions formulated.”
Among the documents CMS is withholding is a consultant’s report on how to determine whether a job should be classified as merit-based and open to everyone, calling it “preliminary” and private information between an attorney and client. Public access lawyers argue that the government guidelines used to make these decisions, which have been in use for nearly a quarter-century, should be public.
The AP has appealed the FOIA denial to the state attorney general’s office, which has not ruled on the matter.
Topic, whose clients include the BGA, said the “pre-decisional” exemption is historically one of the most abused by government agencies nationwide.
“The lack of transparency is troubling, but not surprising,” Shakman said.