SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois Department of Transportation circumvented rules devised to keep politics out of state jobs and improperly hired more than 250 people in the last decade, accelerating the practice under Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, the state's top investigator decreed in a report released Friday.
Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza reported that IDOT's use of "staff assistants" to skirt anti-patronage guidelines began in 2003 under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who's serving a federal prison term for political corruption. But it noted that the number of hires jumped from 52 in 2008 to 104 in 2011, the first two years after Quinn, now locked in a tight battle for re-election in November, took over for the ousted Blagojevich.
The report said investigators found no evidence that Quinn or his staff members were aware of impropriety, but former IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider, who resigned in June as heat grew on the administration over the hiring issue, said recommendations for agency hires came from Quinn's office.
The "vast majority" of hires "were chosen from those recommended to me or my staff by the governor's office," Schneider said in her response to the report.
"Neither I nor my staff were in a position to reject the recommended positions."
Spokesman Grant Klinzman acknowledged that Quinn's office suggests applicants for eligible jobs, but he said the governor expects them to be hired according to the rules.
"The governor's office's expectation and understanding is, has been, and always will be that any candidate who is ultimately hired is doing the work of the position that candidate is filling," Klinzman said.
The mammoth report, which followed a three-year investigation, laid out a Byzantine process by which relatives, political supporters and friends of officeholders were hired as staff assistants, a job that the agency declared it could fill without publicly posting it and offering interviews to any qualified candidate. In many instances, those employees were then transferred -- again without an interview -- into jobs covered by the hiring rules, making it more difficult to remove them.
"The duration and pervasiveness of IDOT's improper acts have undoubtedly denied countless qualified candidates the opportunity to lawfully obtain state employment on the basis of merit," the report said.
IDOT officials said the interview process is laborious and time-consuming when employees need to be hired quickly. Meza dismissed that claim.
"There was clearly agency mismanagement at the highest levels regarding the responsibilities they had," Meza told reporters in Chicago.
He said he had not talked to federal prosecutors, but he has the authority to share his findings with them if there is an inquiry.
Quinn trumped the release Friday's report on Thursday by trotting out acting Transportation Secretary Erica Borggren to briefly tell reporters in Chicago -- without mentioning the forthcoming report -- that IDOT had decided to lay off the 58 current staff assistants at the agency, create a review board to oversee hiring, and freeze indefinitely the creation of any new positions that can be filled without strings.
That wasn't sufficient for Quinn's challenger in the November election, Republican Bruce Rauner, who in a prepared statement said Illinois residents "pay a significant corruption tax," adding that the patronage revelations "are just one more reminder why we need term limits on career politicians like Pat Quinn."
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling bars political considerations in most state government hires, but allows political loyalty to be considered for jobs involving confidential information, policymaking or public statements. Meza found the staff assistant job descriptions included such tasks, but that the employees were mowing grass, answering phones, setting up training and completing monthly supply requisitions.