Report: illegal political hirings still made in Cook Co. gov't

March 4, 2008 4:11:17 PM PST
A new report by a federal court monitor investigating patronage by Cook County's hiring officials concludes that the practice is still prevalent. The report was released as the county board voted to raise the sales tax while giving up control of the health services bureau, which has its share of politically connected workers.

Giving up control of the hospital system to an independent board is one step toward ending patronage. In a 54-page report, the federal court monitor documented more than 220 claims filed by people who said they lost out on jobs or promotions to politically connected hires. The report tracked complaints from a two and half year period from 2004 to early 2007.

It's the largest and most expensive department in Cook County government. For years, the Cook County Bureau of Health has had a reputation of being inefficient, bloated and a prime place for patronage.

"The president's office has continued to use this important health resource as a piggy bank for jobs and contracts to serve political needs rather than the needs of our citizens," said Larry Suffredin, (D) Cook County Commissioner.

So to change that, Suffredin cut a deal with county president Todd Stroger to give up control of the hospital system to an independent board of professionals in exchange for raising the sales tax. It's a move that is intended to help prevent patronage - something a new report suggests is thriving in Cook County government.

Retired judge Julia Nowicki is the federal court monitor who documented a history of political hiring.

"We have found a number of situations where a more qualified person was overlooked for a particular position so that, what seems to be a politically connected person could have that position," said Nowicki.

The fact that patronage is alive and well in Cook County comes as no surprise to commissioner Mike Quigley.

"We just passed a massive sales tax hike, twice as much as was needed. And this was before we attempted to make cuts and at a time when it now comes out that it's being for political jobs," said Quigley.

Stroger's administration claims illegal political hiring occurred before Stroger took over and that Stroger is taking steps to prevent patronage.

"The president has taken extreme measures to ensure that there are no political discrimination practices in the county by instituting training for the employees, certifications for employees involved in the hiring process, as well as those who are applying and candidates for employment," said Laura Lechowicz Felicione, Todd Stroger Special Counsel.

Stroger is not in town to answer questions himself. He and several county commissioners and employees are in Washington D.C. for a conference, one that Quigley has attended in the past. Quigley calls the conference a boondoggle and waste of taxpayers' money. The Stroger administration says it is a very worthwhile conference.