6 months, 2 weeks ago David Kidwell, John Chase and Alex Richards, Chicago Tribune
Refusal to boost the Metra salary of a political worker and it became public
From David Kidwell, John Chase and Alex Richards, Chicago Tribune:
When House Speaker Michael Madigan accidentally triggered a patronage scandal at the Metra commuter rail agency, it was the result of two extraordinary events.
First his request to boost the Metra salary of a longtime political worker was refused. Then it became public.
The ensuing uproar has cost taxpayers a fortune, prompted a shake-up at Metra and spawned ongoing investigations into political favoritism, insider dealing and a lack of transparency. Yet none of those inquiries is likely to illuminate the extent of Madigan's far-reaching patronage operation or his efforts to sustain his legion of loyalists.
A Tribune investigation sought to do just that, documenting employees at every level of state and local government who work elections for Madigan, donate regularly to his campaign funds, register voters for him or circulate candidate petitions on his behalf.
By that conservative measure, the newspaper found more than 400 current or retired government employees with strong political ties to Madigan. It also found repeated instances in which Madigan took personal action to get them jobs, promotions or raises, just as he did for the Metra employee.
From the ranks of those workers Madigan has built the most potent ground game in Illinois politics, which he uses to influence elections in every corner of the state, from suburban mayor to governor, from county board to Congress.
Political foot soldiers often bounced between city, county and state payrolls — including nearly two dozen who collected pensions from one government job while getting a paycheck at another.
Top political performers advanced in public careers despite questionable qualifications or troubled work histories. And they frequently got better jobs and pay.
One precinct captain went from being a city truck driver to overseeing hundreds of employees in the Cook County Sheriff's Office in less than three years. Another political soldier got a management position with the county despite a federal conviction as a ghost payroller. And a former top vote-getter for Madigan who rose from streetlight repair worker for the city to the No. 2 spot in the Transportation Department is now at the center of the $2 million federal bribery investigation into Chicago's red light camera program.
Madigan declined to be interviewed or answer questions about his practices. Instead, he issued a statement through spokesman Steve Brown:
"The individuals who assist in community projects and campaigns have a strong interest in politics and government, just like the supporters and volunteers of any other public official. They share my belief in fairness for working middle-class families, strong and safe neighborhoods and civic responsibility."
Nowhere are those workers more important than in campaigns for the state House, where Madigan makes and breaks candidates every election — ensuring a Democratic majority that is perpetually beholden to the Southwest Side lawmaker they have chosen as House speaker for three decades.
As Madigan engages the gears of his political machine for the 2014 elections, the Tribune sought to document how a state lawmaker elected by fewer than 30,000 people every two years built a political operation he has used to dominate state government for decades.
That dominance gives the speaker unmatched sway over state spending — a power that is not lost on public officials when they receive a Madigan job inquiry.
A call from the speaker
Nine veteran government officials who oversaw hiring, promotions or raises all told the Tribune similar stories about their conversations with Madigan. Often, he would suggest people for particular job openings. Other times, he would ask how well particular employees were doing in their jobs, or request raises or promotions.
In each case, the officials said Madigan never demanded action, but they felt compelled to follow his suggestions.
Juan Ochoa, former head of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, said Madigan called him to request a raise for Sherry Brticevich, the daughter of a former state senator from Madigan's Southwest Side neighborhood. "He made a point to say this was a favor for someone very close to him," Ochoa said.
Ochoa said Brticevich was a hard worker who deserved the raise she received after Madigan's call.
"I didn't feel like he was putting a gun to me but, then again, he is the speaker of the House," Ochoa said. "This was someone who is important to the speaker of the House, who to a great extent controlled our legislation and funding."
Brticevich, daughter of the late state Sen. Frank Savickas, said she applied for the job "just like everybody else" and said she was unaware if Madigan made any calls on her behalf.
A top aide to disgraced former Gov. George Ryan said Madigan routinely called to get jobs for favored political workers. Scott Fawell — who was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison for conspiring with Ryan to use public resources for political gain — said he helped Madigan secure his supporters dozens of jobs over a decade while he served in various top posts under Ryan.
"He'd come down or call periodically, we'd talk a little Sox baseball because we're both huge fans, maybe we'd talk a little politics, and eventually he'd say, 'Hey, I've got a guy I'd like you to look at for a job,'" Fawell told the Tribune.
The other officials in charge of hiring told the newspaper similar stories about dozens of Madigan calls, dating to the early 1990s, in which the speaker asked for raises or jobs for his people. Many of those officials, who worked at various levels of state or local government, spoke on the condition that their names not be used.
Another now-infamous example involves the summer scandal at Metra, where CEO Alex Clifford was ousted from his top post in June after he refused Madigan's repeated requests to increase the pay for one of his longtime political foot soldiers, Patrick Ward.
When Clifford threatened to go public with the Madigan patronage allegations and other complaints about political interference, the Metra board offered him a severance package worth as much as $871,000 that included a requirement he keep silent. The controversy prompted a massive shake-up at Metra, and eventually the departures of six board members. The cost of the episode could surpass $1 million, including Metra payments to law firms and outside consultants. That doesn't count costs of ongoing state investigations.
"One of the most insidious effects of Illinois-style patronage comes into play if people on the receiving end don't accede to the 'request' the governmental power broker is making on behalf of his patronage soldier," said former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins, who won convictions of top officials in the Daley administration during a 2005-2006 investigation of illegal political hiring at City Hall.
"That is where there can be a governmental price to pay for failing to play the game — a form of retribution," Collins said. "That is the underbelly of patronage."
The newspaper found there was no job too small for Madigan to exert his influence.
Former Oak Lawn Mayor David Heilmann told the Tribune he was surprised several years ago when Madigan called him about a part-time village inspector who now makes $12,000 a year moonlighting for the village.
"I remember that we had just laid off a bunch of guys, and Madigan was calling to see if we could put him back on," Heilmann said. "I told him the position had been eliminated but if a spot came open I would pass along his recommendation.
"I will be honest, after I hung up I started hoping I didn't piss him off," Heilmann said. "Let's face it, he is the most powerful man in this state, and a request like that leaves you in a very uncomfortable position."
The former mayor said that during his tenure he got two such calls from Madigan. One was a recommendation for village attorney. The other was for the inspector job for Ronald Crane. In both cases, the village made the hires.
Crane, 49, has an Oak Lawn residence and a history of run-ins with the law, including a 1992 drug conviction, public records show. He was hired by the suburb in 2007, the same year he was hired as a full-time state electrician now making more than $91,000 a year with the Illinois secretary of state's office. Both jobs came less than a year after records show he first became a paid Madigan foot soldier.
Crane didn't return requests for comment. He is among 45 Madigan supporters found by the Tribune who got government jobs about the same time they began working for or donating to Madigan's political organization, according to public records.
Political payments, public payrolls
The Tribune found many cases in which Madigan operatives bounced from government job to government job, agency to agency. One example is David Foley, 50, a longtime top precinct captain who has donated more than $23,000 to Madigan political funds since 1999, when he got one of nearly a dozen different government jobs he has held in 25 years.
Foley lasted only weeks in some jobs, was fired from one and landed in another position that has been repeatedly filled by members of Madigan's political brigade.
Records show he's been an engineer technician at the Cook County Highway Department, county correctional officer, seasonal laborer for the county Forest Preserve District, Chicago cop, administrative assistant to the county recorder of deeds, customer service manager at the county treasurer's office, cemetery hotline director for the state comptroller, executive officer under the county medical examiner, state highway traffic patrol manager and director of verification for the Chicago city clerk, and is now an executive assistant for the secretary of state.
When Foley took the city clerk job, one of the top positions in the office, in January 2012, he succeeded another Madigan precinct captain. That worker, Lawrence McPhillips, left to take another government job making $123,000 for the city.
When Foley left the post last year, he was succeeded by James Gleffe, 31. Gleffe, who records show came from a $65,000 job as a legal adviser to the secretary of state, has been a Madigan paid political soldier since 2010, records show. Gleffe makes more than $99,000 a year, according to the clerk's office.
Foley and Gleffe did not return requests for comment. A spokesman for Secretary of State Jesse White said White was not contacted by Madigan about hiring Crane, Foley or Gleffe.
The post at the clerk's office was also held for a short time between Foley and Gleffe by yet another Madigan operative, Lisamarie Miller, 38. She has worked in the office since 2004, the year before she began donating to Madigan political funds.
The succession of Madigan supporters in the same job is not an isolated phenomenon, and extends to positions on appointed boards.
Consider the Cook County Employee Appeals Board, a once-a-month post that until very recently paid about $35,000 per year. The board, long known as a haven for the politically connected, passes judgment on appeals filed by disciplined county workers.
One seat on the board has been occupied by members of Madigan's army since 2006, when former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger appointed Mary Morrissey to the seat. Morrissey is a longtime paid soldier and donor to Madigan who for years served as the political director in the various campaigns of his daughter Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
In 2011, Morrissey resigned her post on the board and took a job as deputy chief of staff to the younger Madigan. Taking her place on the board was the retiring deputy recorder of deeds for Cook County, Raymond Nice, who was appointed by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Nice, 58, made about $118,000 per year as deputy recorder of deeds. He is a longtime precinct captain, paid political worker and donor to Madigan. Nice resigned his board appointment after four months because of a prohibition on collecting his county pension while collecting the county paycheck.
The next in line was John Bills, 52, a longtime precinct captain who was forced to resign his Preckwinkle appointment following Tribune disclosures about his role in the $2 million bribery scandal at City Hall.
In his 32-year career with the city, Bills rose from a lamp maintenance worker to become the second in command at the Department of Transportation, with a $138,000 salary. In the decade before he retired in 2011, Bills was largely responsible for overseeing the contract of the city's red light camera vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year fired Redflex amid the bribery scandal, now the subject of a federal grand jury investigation. Bills has denied any wrongdoing.
Preckwinkle, who demanded Bills' resignation upon learning of the scandal in 2012, also moved to strip the board members of their annual pay in favor of a $500-per-meeting fee.
She declined to discuss the succession of Madigan operatives who held that particular seat, instead opting to issue a brief statement through her spokeswoman. "No seat on the Employee Appeals Board belongs to anyone," the statement said. "These are my appointments."
Bills isn't the only Madigan soldier whose government career has been touched by controversy.
One Madigan-connected employee, Robert Hough, was recently hired by longtime Madigan ally Dorothy Brown, clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, despite his 1995 guilty plea in federal court to charges he was a ghost payroller for the city.
Hough, now 52, admitted taking nearly $10,000 in cash and benefits for doing no work on a part-time city job inspecting traffic signs. He left the public payroll after his conviction and became an elevator repair worker.
Records indicate Hough was a member of a different political organization at the time of his federal conviction. But in 1999, as he completed his court-supervised release, he began donating to Madigan. He has given nearly $8,000 to Madigan's 13th Ward Democratic Organization.
In 2012, Hough did political work for Madigan on a suburban state representative race. And he was hired in August of that year by Brown to be a $50,000-a-year supervisor of staffers retrieving court files, according to a Brown spokeswoman.
Hough declined to comment about his support for Madigan. He denied Madigan helped him get his job.
Dorothy Brown declined to answer Tribune questions about whether Madigan played any role in the hiring of more than a dozen clerk's employees with political ties to his organization, including Hough. A spokeswoman for the circuit clerk said Brown did not speak to Madigan about hiring Hough.
One employee who retired from the clerk's office in 2006 acknowledged Madigan helped get him the job.
"If you're writing about this stuff, then you know. That is just the way it is," said Richard Porento, 72, who did campaign work for Madigan. "I got the job through Mike Madigan, and I was grateful."
Another haven for Madigan loyalists was the former Bureau of Electricity in the city's Streets and Sanitation Department — dubbed "Madigan Electric" by political insiders, according to testimony at the trial of Al Sanchez, the former streets and sanitation chief convicted of illegal political hiring under Daley.
Among the many who rose out of "Madigan Electric" was Ronald Gorney, who began his career as a Madigan precinct captain about the same time as records show he started a city job as a truck driver in the bureau.
Several years later, in 2002, he left that job to become a supervisor in the office of Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan. Within three years of that move, Gorney was in charge of more than 200 sheriff employees, including 120 sworn police officers, as deputy chief of the child enforcement division, according to the sheriff's office.
Thomas Dart, who took over the sheriff's office in 2006, said Gorney's name came up in an audit of jobs he ordered soon after he took office.
"He was one of those guys who just didn't fit," Dart said in a recent interview. "It was clear his background and qualifications did not match that kind of job."
Ten months after Dart took office, Gorney resigned his post. In an exit interview, Gorney said he left due to "workplace harassment" and being stripped of all job responsibilities, records show.
Dart, who acknowledged he and Madigan are not political allies, said his office's assessment of Gorney's qualifications had nothing to do with politics. Dart said he has never been contacted by Madigan on personnel matters.
"To me, political ties don't really matter as long as you can do the job," he said. "I imagine there are plenty of Madigan guys in my office, but I couldn't tell you who they are."
Gorney declined to be interviewed for this report.
Many of Madigan's supporters contacted by the Tribune said they were aware Madigan was involved in helping his political soldiers advance in their government careers. But most insisted that wasn't true in their cases.
"I knew guys who asked for things and asked for things and never got them, and maybe some who did," said Henry Sobieck, whose name came up at the Sanchez trial as a member of "Madigan Electric." "I can tell you that I never asked for anything, and I have no idea whether my connection to Madigan helped me or not."
Nearly a dozen former and current precinct captains interviewed by the Tribune describe a world where the benefits to a member of Madigan's army may be significant, but so are the costs.
They are expected to regularly walk their neighborhoods, write precinct newsletters, attend block parties and help residents with requests for everything from rat traps to tree trimming. They also help fill Madigan's political coffers by making donations and selling tickets to fundraising dinners.
During the election season, many are tasked to work outside the 13th Ward, encouraging voters they've never met in some far-flung suburb or district to back a candidate Madigan has deemed worthy of his support.
After the election, the captains said, a familiar scene would play out at Madigan's 13th Ward headquarters in a nondescript two-story building at 65th Street and Pulaski Road. There they would appear before Madigan and his ward chieftains — usually Frank Olivo and Marty Quinn, who between them have represented the ward on City Council for the past 20 years.
Numbers in hand, the three would talk with the precinct captains about how well they got the vote out, what they did right and what they didn't. Then they'd have a question: What do you need?
Most jobs with Chicago, Cook County and Illinois state government are supposed to be free of political influence. But the lines on where legitimate job recommendations or inquiries stop and improper favors begin have been a constant source of debate.
In the past three decades, federal court decrees, criminal prosecutions and government reform initiatives have tried to whittle away at the state's patronage culture. Chicago and Cook County alone have paid out tens of millions of dollars in civil settlements to people who lost out on jobs because they didn't have clout.
"Government should be hiring people based on the merits. Period. Because it is our public money and we expect that our money will be spent wisely and that means you hire the best people for the job," said David Hoffman, a former Chicago inspector general and federal prosecutor. "Whether someone is a political worker or an ally is irrelevant to the job."
In the wake of the corruption case that sent ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to prison, an ethics commission appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn and led by Collins identified patronage as a major source of malfeasance and mistrust in government. But many of the panel's recommendations to attack patronage and provide more government oversight were ignored by the Madigan-dominated General Assembly.
"Making people care is one of the biggest problems with all of this stuff," Collins said. "Nothing is ever going to change until people understand the costs and harm of this and then care enough to put a stake in the ground."