Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said in April she knew nothing about potentially illegal patronage hiring at the state agency she runs.
Now, Schneider is refusing to discuss how her stepdaughter secured a job and promotion at the Illinois Department of Transportation – and whether the proper personnel procedures were followed.
Schneider was appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2011 to run the state agency, which maintains thousands of miles of roads across the state, and helps promote and regulate rail travel and airports in Illinois.
The Better Government Association confirmed Schneider's stepdaughter Ashley Carpenter was hired at IDOT in 2006 as a part-time clerical secretary in the Division of Aeronautics.
At the time, Schneider was IDOT's director of finance and administration, one of the top jobs. The BGA also found that Carpenter was promoted in 2007 into a full-time "staff assistant" post in IDOT's District 6 office in Springfield.
An IDOT spokesman said Schneider did not help Carpenter get either job.
However, Schneider would not agree to an interview, and an interview with Carpenter raised questions about whether strings indeed were pulled.
Carpenter told the BGA she does not know, even today, how the staff assistant position came about.
She relayed that she was at her IDOT job when, one day, generic personnel paperwork arrived on her desk, which she filled out and turned in.
Shortly after, Carpenter said, she found out through the mail that she had been promoted to a staff assistant. She said she never applied or interviewed to become a staff assistant, or discussed that prospect with Schneider.
"Honestly, I have no idea how I became full-time," Carpenter said. "I have no idea who put that stack of papers on my desk."
Carpenter was hired as a staff assistant using the "Rutan-exempt" process, where politics and other subjective factors are allowed to be used as a basis for hiring, according to IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell, and documents obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Most state-government hiring, firing and promotions are supposed to be objective – free of politics, nepotism and the like – ever since a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as "Rutan."
Under Rutan, politics can be considered in hiring only for a small number of select jobs that deal with policy, legal issues and media responsibilities, among others.
The BGA reported last year that IDOT, under Gov. Pat Quinn and his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, hired numerous people as staff assistants, and assigned terms such as "policy" and "spokesperson" to their job descriptions during the application process. With those responsibilities, the posts could be filled by virtually anyone, without regard to qualifications.
The problem, the BGA found: Despite those descriptive terms, many of the staff assistants did not end up performing those duties. Really, they did the type of work that should have resulted in an objective hiring process where qualifications mattered. The BGA also found that staff assistants often ended up in union positions – a protected status that meant they were harder to fire or demote with a change in governor.
In other words, the BGA found that IDOT appeared to violate state-government personnel procedures stemming from the Supreme Court's Rutan ruling.
In Carpenter's case, documents show Carpenter was hired as a staff assistant for "development and coordination of policy," and an IDOT spokesman said she was indeed performing those duties.
However, Carpenter said she could not discuss whether she actually performed policy work as a staff assistant. "I can't answer that," Carpenter told the BGA.
In an interview with the BGA in April, Schneider said she did not know about issues of political hiring involving staff assistants.
"I was not aware that that was the case," Schneider said. "I was under the assumption that the job descriptions accurately reflected the work that those people would be doing when they came on."
More recently, the BGA pressed IDOT to make Schneider available to talk specifically about her stepdaughter's situation, but the agency refused. Schneider couldn't otherwise be reached for comment.
Earlier this year, Carpenter joined IDOT's Division of Aeronautics as a data analyst, where she makes $52,872 a year. Her new job is listed as "Rutan-covered," meaning she now cannot be fired for political reasons.
Carpenter said she works hard, and doesn't rely on her family connections.
"I'm good at what I do, and I know I'm good at what I do," she said.
Because she is no longer a staff assistant, Carpenter's job was not subject to a "desk audit" launched by IDOT after the initial BGA story. In that audit, IDOT found that 50 of the 61 remaining staff assistants at the agency were not performing the kind of work they were hired to do – indicating the Supreme Court decision was likely violated in the hiring process.
Since 2003, IDOT hired more than 200 staff assistants. Many, like Carpenter, have since moved to other roles within the agency, and are now covered by unions.
In April, Chicago attorney Michael Shakman, an anti-patronage crusader, filed papers in U.S. District Court seeking to remove improper IDOT hires, and have the jobs re-filled through a fair process. Schneider said in April that because so many are now in unions, doing that would be too costly to taxpayers.
This article was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Patrick McCraney. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (815) 483-1612.