Inspector general finds plenty of blame to go around on tollway hiring

Illinois tollway leaders said reforms are ongoing after a troubling report by the agency's inspector general that pointed out "collective mismanagement" involving political hiring, lapses in drug testing and other irregularities.

The findings by Inspector General Theodor Hengesbach released Thursday come in the wake of the ouster of the tollway board by state lawmakers in January after the Daily Herald reported about cronyism and nepotism involving jobs and contracts.

The inspector general noted one candidate was hired for a Rutan-exempt general manager job in 2017, although there was no accurate job description. Rutan-exempt refers to certain jobs where political affiliations are permitted and is based on a 1980s lawsuit over patronage hiring.

Previous administrations had no formal process for filling Rutan-exempt positions and failed to document hires or check if candidates matched job descriptions, Hengesbach said. But despite "collective mismanagement," the person in question was performing well and no disciplinary actions were recommended, he said.

The Daily Herald in 2018 reported on several high-paying positions filled by people with Republican ties at the tollway under Gov. Bruce Rauner's tenure.

Hengesbach cited "collective mismanagement" again in a case in which a person recommended by a board director was hired as a manager in 2016 despite not being qualified. The person was later fired.

Tollway officials promised a review of all Rutan-exempt jobs and to require managers to fill out justification memos in such cases.

Now "you have the IG at the table with us, working through the issues with us," tollway Executive Director Jose Alvarez said. "It helps me reshape and make sure we put the controls in place to make sure stuff like this doesn't happen again."

The report also found that three Rutan-exempt workers did not undergo preemployment drug tests and that summer interns got a drug-test reprieve in 2018 because the tests were deemed "unnecessary." Tollway officials agreed to enforce consistent drug testing of new employees.

Another concern involved omissions over criminal background checks, including one in which a candidate was offered a job only to have it rescinded after a clerical error.

Since starting at the tollway in April, Alvarez has hired four former Chicago Housing Authority colleagues for Rutan-exempt executive positions.

"These were folks that have a proven track record and know what they're doing," he said.

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