- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Nearly five dozen Illinois Department of Transportation employees have been given a temporary reprieve from layoff because of a court agreement by Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration amid a hiring scandal.

Quinn’s lawyers agreed this week in Sangamon County Circuit Court to disregard the Sept. 30 dismissal date for 58 so-called “staff assistants” until they have a hearing before a judge. An IDOT spokesman said the order simply delays Transportation Secretary Erica Borggren’s decision to eliminate the staff assistant’s position but doesn’t reverse it.

Abolishing the post was part of a shake-up Quinn announced last month after a blistering report about improper transportation hiring. The Teamsters union, which represents the workers, filed a lawsuit to block the dismissals.

Carl Draper, a Springfield-based attorney for the workers, said Tuesday a status hearing would be scheduled for late this month. He declined to comment further.

IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said Borggren is not second-guessing her decision to cut out staff assistants as part of agency reform.

“We are moving full-speed ahead with overhauling the agency,” Tridgell said in an emailed statement.

The staff assistant’s position is central to an investigation released last month by the Office of the Executive Inspector General. It found that for 10 years, 255 people were hired into the position through improper maneuvering to skirt rules designed to keep political considerations out of hiring decisions.

Dozens of Democrats and those with political clout were hired into what were supposed to be policymaking posts, people privy to confidential information or public spokesmen, Inspector General Ricardo Meza found. Those jobs are free to be filled at a governor’s pleasure by whomever he chooses, free of U.S. Supreme Court “Rutan” rules that require hiring based on merit only.

But Meza’s investigation found those people were often doing routine tasks such as mowing lawns and answering phones.

Quinn’s office has said the practice goes back to 2003 and the administration of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now imprisoned on federal political corruption convictions. Quinn says he was unaware of the practice but ordered an audit to review it when he learned of it in an August 2013 report by watchdog Better Government Association.

Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for Quinn’s Republican opponent Bruce Rauner, criticized the decision to delay, saying in a news release that Quinn promised to fire the 58 “and now says he won’t.  That’s on top of the other 103 illegal hires he’s already refusing to fire.  Pat Quinn’s capacity to break his promises to the people of Illinois knows no bounds.”

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

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