Thursday, May 18, 2006

More stressors

This week has got to be a long one for the governor’s office, but the stressors likely started back in November when Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration was littered with federal subpoenas regarding its hiring practices. This week’s string of media reports (see here and here) has potentially poked deeper holes in the administration’s carefully construed public perception protection plan. The articles about his administration keeping a list of people who were referred to state jobs by political insiders can be confusing, so let’s consider some of the basics.

The governor’s administration is subject to a personnel code that spells out rules for hiring practices. Civil service jobs make up most of the positions, and there are 28 exceptions to the rules (scroll down to section 4c to see the exemptions). For example, Daniel Stralka, executive director of the Illinois Civil Service Commission, says university jobs are exempt because universities have their own set of rules. Similarly, private secretaries for agency directors are exempt from having to take an exam, one of the steps to ensure state employees are qualified for their positions (scroll down to section 4d in the personnel code for partial exemptions).

David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform helped explain the distinction between jobs that are exempt and jobs that are not. “The rule of thumb would be if you’re in a front-line, [policy] implementing position, then you want to be protected from political influence,” he said. “If you’re in a position where you would be seen as speaking on behalf of a political person, then there’s more of a reason for [you] to be affiliated with the political person.”

He said the courts have exempted people who represent public officials, such as a spokesperson. “Courts have said it’s logical that [a state officer] would want to hire someone who knew them, who wasn’t necessarily a civil servant or who scored highest on the exams, but was trusted to do the right thing,” Morrison said.

As far as political insiders recommending their friends or family members for state jobs, Stralka noted the words “employee sponsors” never appear in the personnel code. Federal prosecutors might have more to say about that one sooner rather than later.

Want more background? The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform offers more information about the cost of political corruption and what to do about it.

Pay to Play?
Another “pay to play” allegation is scheduled to come Friday morning, when a national group, called Consejo de Latinos Unidos (Council of United Latinos), holds a press conference in the state Capitol. The group intends to outline allegations that the Illinois Hospital Association has traded political favors with the governor’s office and the Illinois Department of Revenue. K.B. Forbes, executive director of Consejo de Latinos Unidos, said the Illinois Hospital Association’s $250,000 in campaign donations over the last two years were “greasing the governor to get political favors out of him.” (Although, the Illinois Hospital Association had donated to people of both parties. You can check donations at the Illinois State Board of Election’s Campaign Disclosure site.) Forbes said his group battles hospital price gauging. He connected political favors, such as ensuring not-for-profit hospitals have tax-exempt status, with civil rights abuses that mostly impact Latinos and other minorities, who are more likely to lack health insurance.

The Illinois Hospital Association said there is no connection whatsoever between campaign donations and political favors. “Obviously, we think that’s ridiculous, unfounded,” said spokesman Danny Chun. “We have a long history of supporting candidates who support the goal of universal and continuous access to health care coverage.”

He also disregarded the allegation that not-for-profit hospitals abuse minorities’ civil rights. “Hospitals in Illinois are the healthcare safety net for the uninsured,” Chun said. “You walk into a hospital anywhere in this state, you will be treated regardless of your ability to pay, your insurance status, [or] your ethnic background.”

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