Allegations painting a culture of patronage hiring in Gov. Pat Quinn's administration became an election-year obstacle for the Chicago Democrat on Wednesday as good government groups raised concerns about the potential for corruption and his Republican challenger latched onto the idea.
The spotlight on hiring came a day after a complaint filed in federal court by attorney Michael Shakman -- whose decades-old court case led to bans on politically based hiring in the Chicago area -- alleged improper hiring in the Illinois Department of Transportation. The lawsuit cited a 2013 Better Government Association probe alleging that jobs may have filled based on "clout instead of competence."
The complaint also alleged that hiring practices that began under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is now imprisoned for corruption, continued into Quinn's tenure -- including reclassifying positions so they'd be exempt from state hiring rules and politics could be considered.
"Patronage is a deeply embedded evil in Illinois politics," Shakman said. "It's not surprising that you have continuity from administration to administration."
Quinn said an audit was immediately ordered after the BGA report surfaced and the problems were addressed.
"We have zero tolerance for anything on hiring that isn't exactly according to the rules," he told reporters in Macomb, according to The McDonough County Voice. "So they conducted an audit, they have done an investigation. I want them to carry that out, to follow the law at all times. That's what I've always believed in and will continue to do that."
Quinn's Republican opponent Bruce Rauner, however, didn't waste any time accusing the governor of Illinois politics as usual.
The Winnetka venture capitalist, who's seeking public office for the first time, has billed himself as an outsider who'll clean up Springfield. His campaign revived past allegations about Quinn being on a ghost payroll -- performing political duties while on a state commission salary -- for former Gov. Dan Walker. Quinn has defended his record of working for the public.
"It should come as no surprise that someone who started his political career as a ghost payroller and patronage chief for Dan Walker is now carrying on the Rod Blagojevich practice of rewarding friends and allies with state jobs," Rauner's campaign said in a statement.
Meanwhile, good government groups said even allegations of patronage hiring were cause for concern.
"It's a slippery slope when we see this happen. It makes sense to look into it right now," said Susan Garrett of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "This can't be a gray area."
For years, patronage hiring had simply been the way to get ahead, particularly in Cook County politics. Shakman began his efforts in 1969 and the decree that bars politics playing a role in employment is named after him. Several agencies, including the Cook County sherriff's office, have reported success in changing the hiring culture as a result of the decree.
The claims of wrongful hiring under Quinn come at a critical time, as he seeks a second full term in what's expected to be one of the most intense and expensive gubernatorial races nationwide.
Quinn's campaign claims he's "devoted his life to fighting political corruption" and the governor often cites his efforts to clean up the image of the office after two consecutive predecessors went to jail for corruption. "It is not good timing in terms of the election," said Dick Simpson, a former alderman and University of Illinois at Chicago professor who has chronicled corruption in Illinois politics. "Undoubtedly it will play into Rauner's campaign themes."
Quinn's campaign spokeswoman Izabela Miltko declined to comment Wednesday.
Shakman said the lawsuit had nothing to do with the election, as it's been going on for years. He said the governor's office had been slow to respond and a meeting earlier this week did not result in an agreement.
"I don't attribute evil motives to the governor, but the state is a large governmental body," he said. "Unless you have well-worked procedures to police that body that are independent of that body, this is going to reoccur."
He said current protections -- including inspectors general -- didn't have enough power to police state government and their findings have often been inaccessible to the public. His lawsuit called for a court-ordered monitor for state government hiring. He added that improper political hires should be let go and the jobs opened up to wider applicant pools.