Pritzker moves to scrap anti-patronage deal amid Illinois corruption, bribery probes

Pritzker moves to scrap anti-patronage deal amid Illinois corruption, bribery probes

After nearly 50 years, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the Governor’s Office no longer needs federal oversight to halt patronage hiring. His request came three days before federal prosecutors said Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan turned public utilities into patronage havens.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said July 14 that the Illinois executive branch had dismantled its patronage hiring system to the point that a 1972 decree should be scrapped. Three days later federal prosecutors exposed how the system had spread to two public utilities.

Pritzker moved to vacate the 1972 agreement with the Governor’s Office, one of the groundbreaking agreements known collectively as the Shakman decrees that challenged the patronage systems in Chicago and Springfield. Lawyers for the governor argued in a supporting memorandum that the Governor’s Office has “instituted an independent and vigorous oversight structure” to prevent patronage.

Days later on July 17, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan was served with a grand jury subpoena related to a federal investigation of a Commonwelth Edison scheme to bribe the speaker by hiring and making over $1.3 million in payments to his associates to gain the speaker’s favor. Prosecutors detailed how Madigan’s office provided names of potential hires ranging from meter readers on up. AT&T was also served a subpoena seeking information about similar payments and hires intended to curry Madigan’s favor.

The decree the governor wants to vacate doesn’t apply to Madigan or the General Assembly, but the timing of his request could not be worse. The 1972 state patronage agreement was reached between then-Gov. Richard Ogilvie and plaintiff Michael Shakman, an independent candidate for delegate to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention. In 1969, Shakman sued the Democratic Organization of Cook County over the longstanding, unspoken policy of requiring public employees to do political work for the Democratic Party. The resulting consent decrees included the Governor’s Office, Cook County and the City of Chicago, among other government entities and leaders.

Pritzker wants to vacate the agreement between Shakman and Ogilvie that prohibited the state from conditioning governmental employment upon any political factor, permitting any employee to do partisan political work during regular working hours or during time paid for by public funds, or encouraging any such conduct.

Even as Shakman agreed in 2014 to lifting federal oversight on the City of Chicago, he sought and was granted more oversight in the form of a federal special master to watch aspects of Illinois Department of Transportation hiring practices. By 2017, that oversight was expanded to other state agencies.

Pritzker cited the creation of the Office of Executive Inspector General and its Hiring and Employment Monitoring Division, as well as the lack of any violation during the tenure of the special master’s oversight. The memorandum also casts doubt on Shakman’s legal standing due to developments in federal jurisprudence since the 1972 decree.

If his motion is granted, the governor’s office would join Cook County, the City of Chicago, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and the Cook County Forest Preserve District, all of which have already left federal court oversight under the decrees. Even so, the optics of the move are not good for the governor.

Three state lawmakers are out of office and another is cooperating to lessen penalties as a result of bribery and corruption charges, with the federal investigation progressing ever closer to Madigan. Pritzker himself faces federal investigation of a $331,000 property tax dodge.

Pritzker seems to have a talent for bad timing. He asked for greater trust of state hiring practices just before news broke that the state’s most powerful politician extended patronage to the private sector. Likewise, he is asking that voters Nov. 3 entrust state lawmakers with greater taxing powers through the “fair tax” as at least five state lawmakers who voted for it have since been implicated in corruption cases.

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