Gov. Pat Quinn's administration, stung by a federal lawsuit alleging illegal hiring amid a tough re-election campaign, announced Thursday it will eliminate 58 transportation agency jobs at the center of the dispute.
Erica Borggren, acting secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, announced the move along with other actions she said were necessary to restore public trust in the sprawling agency. But a spokesman for Bruce Rauner, the Republican businessman trying to unseat Quinn in November's election, criticized the moves and questioned Quinn's portrayal of himself as a reformer.
Borggren -- who took over in July after the previous director resigned amid charges of illegal patronage hiring -- said that in addition to cutting "staff assistant" positions and abolishing the title, IDOT would create a board to oversee hiring and continue a freeze on hiring for positions that can be filled by a favored candidate, regardless of merit. The agency said that the 58 people who hold the jobs currently at IDOT will be laid off.
"At the heart of a decision like this," she said, "is public confidence -- the fact that the taxpayers that we serve deserve to have integrity of our people and our processes," Borggren told reporters Thursday afternoon. The move comes after an anti-patronage campaigner filed a federal lawsuit earlier this year seeking an investigation and independent monitor to oversee employment practices at IDOT. Attorney Michael Shakman's motion in April followed a watchdog group's report in August 2013 that jobs may have been filled based on "clout instead of competence." The report said Quinn and his predecessor, now-imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, hired as many as 200 "staff assistants" without adhering to rules prohibiting political considerations and without properly offering the jobs to the general public.
Borggren wouldn't say that cutting the positions resulted from Shakman's action. Instead, she said an internal audit last year showed employees were performing duties not in their official job descriptions.
Quinn signed an executive order Thursday creating an IDOT Technical Merit Board to oversee employment practices. An existing hiring freeze which applies to jobs deemed exempt from rules established in a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Rutan will continue indefinitely.
In the governor's campaign, Rauner has attempted to erode Quinn's portrayal of himself as a lifelong government reformer and outsider, and the Republican's campaign repeated that theme in responding to the IDOT moves Thursday.
"Firing political patronage workers he illegally hired is like an arsonist trying to take credit for putting out a fire he started," Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said. "Yet another example of Pat Quinn being a phony reformer."
After Shakman filed his lawsuit in April, IDOT said it had already looked at the jobs in question and reclassified them to comply with Rutan rules. But in May, when The Associated Press submitted a public-records request for documents showing the changes, the administration said it had not completed it and has yet to disclose the records.