Patronage hires lead to federal oversight of Cook County Clerk’s office

Patronage hires lead to federal oversight of Cook County Clerk’s office

An illegal patronage operation brought on federal oversight when Karen Yarbrough was Cook County’s recorder of deeds. It’s happened again to her as county clerk.

A federal judge ordered a year of court oversight after finding Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough clearly violated anti-patronage hiring rules. The oversight will continue through at least August 2021.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier needed 44 pages to outline all the problems. They included ignoring requirements for job postings, failing to get court approval for ranking positions, favoring people with political connections and purposely isolating employees.

Yarbrough is vice-chair of the Illinois Democratic Party and an ally of party chair and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. She told the Chicago Tribune she will appeal, but needs to focus on her office’s online capabilities.

“I have to move on,” Yarbrough told the Tribune. “I’ve got bigger fish to fry right now.”

Anti-patronage attorney Michael Shakman, filed a complaint in federal court on Sept. 6, stating Yarbrough employed political allies to positions that are supposed to be free of political influence.

Yarbrough rotated supervisors to offices throughout the county to make them hate their jobs and quit, which would allow her to appoint political allies to fill the vacancies. Shakman’s filing also noted Yarbrough sent text messages to employees’ personal cellphones seeking campaign contributions after getting their numbers from government records.

The court supervision for the clerk’s office is a first, but it’s not a first for Yarbrough. She was under federal oversight for questionable hiring practices from 2012 to 2018 as recorder of deeds, when she employed political connections and family members to high-ranking positions. At the time, she claimed the county’s ethics laws didn’t apply to her because she was an “independently elected office holder,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Yarbrough was elected clerk in 2018 but will soon be the head of the recorder’s office again. The recorder’s office is set to merge into the clerk’s office in December.

The court-ordered supervision of the clerk’s office is another black eye on Cook County government, especially considering the office was free of supervision for 28 years under David Orr. It immediately ran into trouble with Yarbrough’s election.

Illinois has been rocked by federal investigations during the past year that have looked into aldermen, state lawmakers and others in Cook County and local government. Most recently, Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski abruptly resigned after his chief of staff, Patrick Doherty, was charged with three counts of bribery in connection with a red-light camera scheme.

Illinois is the second-most corrupt state in the nation, according to the University of Illinois-Chicago. Its taxpayers face the highest overall state and local tax burden, with corruption adding at least $550 million a year to that load.

Yarbrough didn’t think the rules applied to her in her previous position of public trust, and believes she has bigger fish to fry after being caught in another patronage scandal. If more than a year of federal oversight fails to hold her accountable, then voters should.

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