- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration hired more than 60 percent of the Illinois Department of Transportation workers whose employment was deemed improper by a state ethics watchdog, a document released Friday shows.

The list, released late Friday in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, shows 173 of the 245 people originally hired as “staff assistants” since 2002 still work for the state, including 161 at the Transportation Department.

The state’s executive inspector general found that the 245 workers were hired in a process that often skirted state rules prohibiting hiring based on political connections. Questions about the hiring are dogging Quinn as he runs for re-election against Republican businessman Bruce Rauner.

Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, announced reforms the day before the inspector’s report came out last month, including eliminating 58 remaining staff assistant posts effective Sept. 30. Transportation Department spokesman Guy Tridgell said none of the other employees will be fired, as Rauner has demanded.

“We believe the problem was not with hiring, but with the work they were doing once they arrived at the agency,” Tridgell said.

Since April, when anti-patronage lawyer Michael Shakman filed a lawsuit seeking an investigation into the staff assistant hires and an independent monitor to govern state hiring, Quinn has said the positions began with his predecessor, ousted ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is serving a federal prison term for political corruption.

But the document shows 153 of the staff assistants - or 62 percent - were hired since February 2009, a month after Quinn took over.

“This further confirms that Pat Quinn has betrayed the people’s trust,” Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf said in an email. “He expanded Rod Blagojevich’s illegal hiring scheme. And instead of cleaning up Springfield, he became the king of cronyism and corruption.”

Quinn campaign spokeswoman Brooke Anderson countered, “The Rauner campaign is lying again - there was no illegal hiring scheme.”

Inspector General Ricardo Meza’s investigation determined that IDOT often filled the jobs with politically connected candidates to perform tasks related to policy, confidential information or public statements - which is allowed. But they ended up doing routine jobs, such as answering phones and mowing lawns, and therefore the posts should have been open to anyone.

Most of the 58 workers whose jobs were cut as part of Quinn’s reforms filed a lawsuit Friday asking a judge to let them keep working until the Transportation Department justifies the layoffs in documents the workers have requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

The lawsuit, filed in Sangamon County Circuit Court, claims there’s no merit behind the layoffs except “to provide political cover for” Quinn.

“That is false,” Quinn spokesman Grant Klinzman said. “The secretary (of transportation) determined that the positions were not needed and is carrying out a reorganization.”

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Contact John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor

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Associated Press writers Sara Burnett and Sophia Tareen contributed from Chicago.

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