SPRINGFIELD -- Former Congressman David Phelps did "little work" as assistant secretary at the Illinois Department of Transportation other than to take actions that entailed "misconduct and abuse," according to an investigative report released Monday.
The Office of the Executive Inspector General found Phelps impermissibly met with job candidates and interfered with hiring and the favorable ranking of contractors. The probe also found that Danny Clayton, assistant to an IDOT regional engineer, abused work time and altered a job posting in a way that favored his son. IDOT fired Clayton in January 2011 and demanded $10,500 in wage reimbursement.
Phelps fired back that his comments to inspector general's investigators were mischaracterized, that he was pegged with wrongdoing by anonymous allegations and that he had no chance to rebut the charges in the report, from which his attorney unsuccessfully sought to redact his name.
Questions about hiring practices have haunted state government officials for a decade, and while Phelps and Clayton were hired under disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, their misconduct, according to Inspector General Ricardo Mesa's report, occurred in 2009 and 2010, after Gov. Pat Quinn took over. Meza published a blistering report in November about Quinn administration hiring improprieties at the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
The inspector general's IDOT report also named two other employees -- including Clayton's former supervisor -- and the owner of a firm that does IDOT work for violating state law prohibiting state employees soliciting or accepting gifts from vendors. The supervisor was counseled and the other employee served a two-week suspension.
Phelps, hired in 2003 after he lost re-election, was excoriated in the report, which included his inability to explain to Meza's investigators what his work day entailed other than meeting with "lots of people." Despite his title, the IDOT secretary at the time, Quinn appointee Gary Hannig, said Phelps was not part of the management team.
"It appears that Mr. Phelps does little work," the report said. "This coupled with the ... investigative findings, seemingly indicates that the primary actions which Mr. Phelps undertakes in an official capacity are those that constitute misconduct and abuse of his position."
The report said Phelps, who made $128,000, acknowledged he met with job candidates, particularly for a 2009 summer hiring program, including those who had supported him in congressional campaigns. According to the report, he told employees doing the hiring whom he favored for jobs because he wanted to help "good people."
Phelps countered that contrary to being unable to discuss his job in detail, he described how tried to bring accountability to the position, represented IDOT on the Illinois Terrorism Task Force, represented IDOT at events aimed at traffic safety, and submitted work schedules that IDOT secretaries approved. He disputed the report's description of his intervention with job candidates and noted allegations that he improperly intervened came from witnesses whose names are redacted and whose testimony he had no chance to rebut.
"I talked to a lot of people about jobs," Phelps said. "I helped direct them to the right information they could have so they'd have a better chance, but it's not because of who they were. As soon as they went out the door, there might be somebody else talking about the same job."
Clayton, who made $102,000, was cited for abusing work time, reporting on timesheets that he spent 186 hours on the site of construction work on Illinois 34 between October 2008 and July 2009, while a project supervisor only documented his appearance twice for about 90 minutes. The report also faulted Clayton for involvement in contractor rankings, but Clayton told investigators it was permissible to intervene for southern Illinois firms because they have lower travel costs for IDOT projects in that region.
IDOT is seeking return of $10,470 in wages from Clayton, an IDOT spokesman said.
Clayton also was found to have removed from a job posting the requirement that applicants have a civil engineering degree, ostensibly to favor candidates without the degree, such as his son. Clayton's son was never hired, the report said.
A message left at Clayton's home was not immediately returned. Clayton said in a written response to Meza's report that the time he spent on Illinois 34 was not limited to the immediate construction site but to areas along the road where deterioration of pavement and bridge approaches made it difficult for heavy coal trucks to maneuver.
He said changes he made to job postings had to be approved by superiors and that his involvement in contractor evaluations rankled long-time engineers who could no longer "take care of their buddies."
"I knew that I had stepped on a lot of toes," wrote Clayton, who spent 27 years in the private sector before joining IDOT, "but where in the world do you get fired for saving money for the owners of the company -- in this case, the taxpayers? The answer is, the state of Illinois."