Watchdog: Cook County clerk illegally hired political connections

Watchdog: Cook County clerk illegally hired political connections

A watchdog has accused Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough of running an “illegal patronage” operation, and is calling for federal oversight of her office.

A watchdog is seeking federal oversight of hiring decisions within Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough’s office after accusing her of “illegal patronage” hires, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The watchdog, anti-patronage attorney Michael Shakman, in a Sept. 6 federal court filing said Yarbrough employed political allies to positions that are supposed to be free of political influence. Among those hired by Yarbrough – who once served in the Illinois House of Representatives – are people with connections to lawmakers in Springfield, according to Shakman.

Yarbrough currently serves as vice chair of the Illinois Democratic Party, which is led by Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

She allegedly went as far as transferring certain supervisors to different branches to pressure them into quitting, in hopes that she could replace them with her political contacts.

Shakman’s filing also claims Yarbrough sent text messages to employees’ personal cellphones seeking campaign contributions, after getting their numbers from government records. Yarbrough has denied all Shakman’s allegations.

Shakman is asking U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier to appoint a federal monitor to the clerk’s office to oversee and investigate Yarbrough’s personnel decisions and recommend reforms, according to the Tribune. This would be the first federal monitor appointed to the clerk’s office.

Yarbrough previously served as the Cook County recorder of deeds until voters chose to merge the position with the clerk in 2016. Yarbrough faced federal oversight for questionable hiring practices during her years as recorder, during which 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.

Voters elected Yarbrough to county clerk in 2018, after retired former Cook County Clerk David Orr served in the role for 28 years.

Shakman is most known for a 1969 suit that resulted in reforms known as the Shakman decree, which provided that politics should not influence personnel decisions in government.

The new allegations against Yarbrough come amid numerous federal investigations into powerful Illinois political leaders. Federal agents recently raided the homes of three close allies of Madigan, and a number of Chicago aldermen have been the subject of federal corruption investigations. In June, a federal court sentenced former Ald. Willie Cochran to one year in prison for wire fraud.

While Mayor Lori Lightfoot has taken steps to address rampant corruption in the city, more work must be done to improve government ethics in Chicago – and Cook County as a whole. Patronage schemes in government offices intended to be neutral only worsen the city and county’s poor reputation for corruption. State and local lawmakers must continue to pursue serious reforms that protect taxpayers from abuse.

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