Substantially clouted

Late last year Mayor Richard Daley said he’s through with federal-court oversight of city hiring.

At the time, Daley said he considered the city in “substantial compliance” with court-imposed rules, collectively known as the Shakman Accord, that aim to remove clout from city hiring, promotions, awarding of overtime, and other job actions.

Daley, quoted by the Chicago Tribune last November at a public event, said, “[W]e have a new Human Resources Department, we have an inspector general, all those concerned, regarding any hiring practices whatsoever.” Translation: The city has all the pieces in place to ask this year for release from the federal court’s scrutiny, which it’s had to endure in various forms since 1972.

While Daley claims he’s clobbered clout, city workers I’ve interviewed tell a different story: Patronage abuse and discrimination continue, seemingly unabated, in almost every city department.

Under Shakman-imposed personnel rules, says one whistleblower, city employee Theresa Hill, “violators have to be more discreet. That’s the only thing that’s changed. It might even be worse.”

How did Chicago, the city that (as an alderman once famously declared) “ain’t ready for reform,” decide to embrace it?

It had help. In 1969, Chicago attorney Michael Shakman, the Independent Voters of Illinois, and others sued the city, Cook County, and the local Democratic Party for corruption in hiring, promotions, and assignment of overtime. The federal civil lawsuit of Michael L. Shakman, et al, v. the City of Chicago, et al—known widely as the Shakman case—resulted in federal-court monitoring of city and county personnel practices. That monitoring continues to this day, overseen until this year by federal district court Judge Wayne Andersen. (Andersen, who retired, was replaced by Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier.)

In April of 2007, the city and the Shakman plaintiffs entered into an agreement called the “Agreed Settlement Order and Accord,” or the Shakman Accord for short. In the Accord the city agreed to end political hiring for most city jobs and create a new hiring plan that detailed how that would work. Also, the city had previously agreed to pay for a court-appointed monitor who’d check that the city actually acted on its agreement.

The monitor, employment-rights attorney Noelle Brennan, got unprecedented access to all of the city’s human resources machinery. She and her staff could sit in on interviews, investigate complaints from employees, and even walk in unannounced to meetings of senior city managers. Brennan would continue in this role until she was satisfied that the city had adequately met its responsibilities under—or was in “substantial compliance” with—the Accord.

To settle Shakman the city has at various times made certain agreements to address patronage abuse in city hiring and promotion. One part of the ongoing settlement: In April 2008, Brennan distributed $12 million of city funds to over 1,400 former and current city employees who claimed abuse and discrimination at the hands of patronage-protecting managers. The claimants got the cash—anywhere from $100,000 to $250—in exchange for agreeing not to use the claimed abuses as the bases for future lawsuits against the city.

In a court hearing almost a year after the payouts, Judge Andersen said that “the process went extremely well . . . no controversy involving those from any side, either claimant or the City, has bubbled up to my attention.” Andersen went on to say, suspect that we have eliminated a huge portion of the old patronage politics.”

Contrast his statement, though, with what Brennan had written the year before in a report to Andersen about the city managers who waged the very abuse whose victims the city compensated. These managers, wrote Brennan, “still hold high-ranking positions within the city of Chicago and . . . have evaded any form of discipline.”

Last summer Brennan recommended that the city form a “discipline committee” that would advise the city how to handle the offending managers. Brennan originally said that the committee would comprise her office, the inspector general’s office, and the city’s now-defunct Office of Compliance. In January Brennan told me, “We’re waiting for the inspector general’s office to sign off before we start the process.” She says she’s not sure whether the committee would release its recommendations to the public.

Brennan has, since 2005, issued over a dozen public reports on the results of her monitoring. But the reports seldom name names, and don’t reveal much of the clout detail handed to her by the hundreds who came forward to make a claim. Brennan says she can’t disclose what she’s learned about the abusers and where they operate, because Michael Shakman, his fellow plaintiffs, and the city “decided not to make it public,” she told me. “It’s part of the court order, and I’m not in a position to violate it.”

But once the city paid out to the 1,427 people whose claims Brennan had approved, their names became public record. So using telephone directories and Internet searches I sought and contacted dozens of them. I found most of them willing to talk in detail about the patronage abuses that still go on—and why the city is still not compliant with the Shakman Accord. Find their stories using the links in the section below, "Stories of the Unclouted." (In many cases, we’ve used aliases; many abused employees fear that speaking out will result in even more retaliation than they’ve already experienced. We’ve also shown how much the federal monitor awarded each—but in general terms, to further hide their identity.)

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While the city meant to mollify claimants with its payouts, it seems mostly to have pissed them off even more. With only one exception, every person with whom I spoke—even those who got the most cash—expressed extreme dissatisfaction with their claim award.

“I should’ve retired at a foreman’s rate,” said one worker, who received $30,000. “So I figure I’m out $300,000” in lost wages and pension. Most other claimants had done similar math, wanting at least one zero added to the amount they received. When they received their actual checks, many got doubly piqued to learn that the government had taken out taxes.

For many claimants, taxes turned out to be the least of the unpleasant surprises awaiting them. After the city paid the claims, the Chicago Tribune obtained and published the claimants’ names. Many reported that once they became known by city coworkers and managers for “ratting,” they became harassed by managers and coworkers. The retaliation got so stressful for some that they took medical leaves or even quit.

The retaliation pile-on had been predicted by federal monitor Brennan. In a report issued just after the payouts, Brennan observed that the city, despite her concerns “raised on numerous occasions,” had released the names to the Trib sooner than it had to—without first warning the claimants or making sure they knew where to report retaliation.

But even if employees do know where to report retaliation, it might do them no good.

The city bars its employees from retaliating against other employees in at least four documents: a 2004 ordinance, a 2005 mayoral executive order, a 2008 code of conduct, and the 2010 personnel rules. Though stated explicitly only in the executive order, it’s generally understood that employees should report retaliation to the inspector general’s office (IGO). Also, employees sometimes take it upon themselves to report retaliation to Brennan’s office.

Brennan wrote about one such case in her September 27, 2007 report to the federal court. Brennan wrote that “recently a City employee reported to the Monitor that she was aware of a serious alleged Shakman violation that was not reported to the Monitor, despite the Court Order requiring such reporting. When the identity of this employee was discovered by the City, the employee reported that individuals in the Mayor’s Office retaliated against her by attempting to exclude her from meetings, attempting to have her stripped of certain duties and attempting to isolate her from the rest of her working group. An explanation given by one City employee for this differential treatment was that the complaining employee ‘could not be trusted’.”

The employee in question is Theresa Hill, an assistant commissioner in the city’s Dept. of Human Resources. Hill told me she’d reported the retaliation to the IGO—which, after a year, despite the city having moved her 16 times in three years, amazingly couldn’t find any evidence of retaliation. (Hill calls the supervising investigator, who still works for the IGO, “a functional idiot.” An IGO spokesman wouldn’t comment.)

To protect her from retaliation, Brennan had the city transfer Hill—who’d established herself as a vocal whistleblower—to the newly-formed (but ill-fated) Office of Compliance, in what Hill describes as “a witness protection program.”

It was a rare move on the monitor’s part, and one generally not available to city employees. The average employee, Hill says, really has no one in city government to protect them from retaliation. They can report to the IGO, “but they’ll grow old waiting for the IGO to complete its investigation . . . and waiting sets whistleblowers up” for more retaliation.

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Last January, inspector general Joseph Ferguson issued the most recent installment in a series of IGO reports on city hiring reform. (The Shakman case’s Judge Andersen had requested these reports to help him gauge the city’s progress on the road to “substantial compliance” with the Shakman Accord.) Ferguson laid it on the line: The IGO “has experienced stiff resistance from the City in its efforts to investigate and prevent Shakman violations,” Ferguson wrote. Further, he expressed “concern about the vigor the City’s commitment to rooting out all illegal patronage hiring.” Rather, he wrote, the city has “sent a message that participation in the long-standing patronage army need not necessarily be fatal to one’s City career.”

A month later, Ferguson recommended—and Daley implemented—the suspension of Daley’s hand-picked hiring compliance chief, Tony Boswell. After it became clear that Daley was throwing him under a bus, Boswell quit. Daley reacted quickly—announcing his intent to move much of Boswell’s hiring compliance functions to Ferguson’s IGO, and calling for a removal of the prohibition against IGO probing of the City Council. (Ferguson had called the prohibition a “gaping hole” in his power and a “severe obstacle” to city hiring compliance.)

But when things go badly, Daley does nothing well if not damage control. He seems to believe he’s cleaned up the train wreck that his Office of Compliance became, and which delayed arrival at substantial compliance with the Shakman Accord. But will he convince the Shakman judge that the city’s reformed?

Not, perhaps, if the judge listens to the day-to-day experiences of non-clouted city employees, many for whom a patronage-free work environment is still just a nice idea.

 

Stories of the unclouted

Police Lieutenant Reuben Slayton

Revenue Investigator Bernell Hopkins

Streets & San Driver Monroe Heath

Police Lieutenant Madison Beadell