When Rahm Emanuel took over as Chicago mayor in spring 2011, Ivan Capifali was a mid-level bureaucrat at the city’s Department of Environment, making about $74,000 annually.
When Emanuel eliminated that department months later as part of a cost-cutting maneuver, Capifali – who had worked there since 1996 – was laid off.
But he rebounded quickly, appointed by City Hall in April 2012 to help run Chicago’s Animal Care and Control, or ACC, the city department that operates the taxpayer-funded pound, dealing with unwelcome wildlife as well as throngs of stray and abandoned dogs and cats.
Capifali was named ACC’s deputy director, the No. 2 post, and given a $20,000 raise.
But why he got the job isn’t totally clear.
He admits not having any experience in animal rescue and welfare.
And his personnel file reveals problems that ended with three separate disciplinary suspensions (one for two weeks) while he was at the environment department.
Among other things, his disciplinary file cites "conduct involving job performance or substandard work performance," "tardiness and absenteeism," "insubordinate actions" and "incompetence or inefficiency in the performance of the duties," according to records obtained from the city under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
In an interview, Capifali relayed he was having family problems at the time, including child-custody issues, and "unfortunately it affected not only my personal life but my work life." He added, "but I turned it around" and have had a good work record since.
As for his lack of animal experience, Capifali said that shouldn’t matter. "In the position I’m at . . . I don’t have to physically handle animals." The ACC has an operating budget of $5.3 million with roughly 80 full- and part-time positions. Referring to himself and ACC Executive Director Sandra Alfred, Capifali said, "Our function here is to manage."
Ok, so how did he manage to get hired at ACC in the first place?
"I don’t know what to tell you about that," Capifali said. "I interviewed for the position and I was selected."
He allowed that Jordan Kaplan, a now-former Emanuel aide who has raised campaign money for President Obama and Emanuel, mentioned the opening to him. Kaplan did not return our calls.
Capifali used to work with Alexandra Holt, Emanuel’s budget director, when Holt and Capifali were at the Department of Environment. An email we obtained shows Capifali writing to Holt after she took over as budget czar and just before he lost his environment department job. "I’d like to come and talk to you," he wrote, without specifying the subject.
Did Holt help him get hired?
Capifali said he doesn’t know. Holt didn’t return telephone calls.
A city spokesman said via email that Holt "was asked if she knew any potential candidates for the position. Alex passed along Ivan’s resume for consideration but had no further conversations about his candidacy."
Emanuel’s now-former chief of staff, Theresa Mintle, signed off on Capifali’s hiring, the spokesman indicated. Mintle did not return our calls.
The spokesman calls Capifali "a hard-worker and effective manager" who has had "no subsequent issues" since his string of disciplinary problems in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
One thing Capifali knows after two years at ACC is how overburdened the city pound is, as well as other shelters that find themselves deluged with dogs and cats, courtesy of bad pet owners and not enough adopters, among other factors. At the ACC shelter alone, more than 20,000 animals pass through each year.
So it came as something of a surprise to learn Capifali surrendered his family dog for adoption weeks after he was hired into the $95,000-a-year ACC job.
Capifali gave up his animal – a black Labrador retriever named Rocco – to PAWS, a rescue group working with ACC to place animals that flow into the city pound. City records show Capifali paid ACC to update rabies shots for Rocco at the pound, and he told us PAWS then came to the facility that same day and picked up Rocco.
This presents two obvious questions:
Doesn’t this run counter to what ACC employees should be doing – easing the strain on the system, not adding to it?
And was this a case of kennel clout – Capifali using his job at ACC to dispose of the dog quickly and easily?
The way Capifali tells it, this was a sad situation that bears some explaining.
"We were responsible pet owners," he said. "Unfortunately my living arrangement changed."
He was moving and the new landlord didn’t allow large dogs, he said. Nobody in his family could take Rocco so, with a heavy heart, the decision was made to give him up after many years as "a family member."
"That dog used to go with us to the beach, he used to go running with me," Capifali said. "It was a very tough decision, it was a family decision."
Capifali said he researched rescue groups and settled on PAWS because it’s a "no-kill" organization, unlike the city pound where euthanasia is common. (Recent stories we did with WBBM-AM highlighted two recent instances of dogs being killed accidentally by ACC workers.)
So he brought Rocco into the ACC pound to update rabies shots, and PAWS picked up the pooch there. He said it wasn’t a special trip for the group, indicating PAWS is at the pound all the time.
He insisted he made the surrender as a "private" person and didn’t use his city job or taxpayer resources to facilitate the transfer – even though the transfer was done at the pound at 27th and Western.
PAWS accepts at least 70 percent of its animals from the city pound and about 30 percent from the public and other shelters. PAWS confirmed Rocco’s pick-up but could provide no further details about what transpired that day, except to say the pooch was adopted out.
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times' political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Robert Herguth. He can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9030.