Amid a global pandemic and mass protests against police brutality, it’s easy to forget Illinois government remains the target of the largest federal corruption probe in the history of the most corrupt state.
The feds have raided, questioned, indicted or jailed dozens of Illinois political figures during the past two years. These are the symptoms of the state’s toxic political culture. Public servants expect special privileges.
And Gov. J.B. Pritzker is happy to oblige, according to a new investigation by WBEZ.
The report found Pritzker filled at least 35 state jobs with individuals on House Speaker Mike Madigan’s “clout list.” A Madigan aide sent the list to Pritzker chief of staff Anne Caprara in December 2018. The speaker’s office then updated the list 17 times.
“The speaker’s vast efforts to influence the personnel decisions of the new administration provides a sharp contrast to Pritzker’s repeated campaign promises to be his own man once elected to the Governor’s Mansion,” wrote reporter Dan Mihalopoulos.
Perhaps most notable is what WBEZ could not find amid thousands of emails: a Pritzker staffer telling the speaker to stop.
While Madigan put his stamp of approval on 35 Pritzker hires, recommendations from the three other legislative leaders combined yielded two paid positions from the governor’s office, according to the report.
Those taxpayer-funded appointments paid off for the governor.
Madigan greenlit Pritzker’s full legislative agenda in Spring 2019, including 20 tax and fee hikes totaling $4.6 billion and placing the governor’s progressive income tax constitutional amendment on the November 2020 ballot.
Beyond the speaker’s picks, the investigation showed Democratic state Rep. Luis Arroyo and state Sen. Martin Sandoval each secured key transportation appointments from Pritzker for their allies before being indicted on corruption charges. Both lawmakers were critical to passing Pritzker’s $45 billion infrastructure package and doubled gas tax hike.
Additional emails obtained by the Illinois Policy Institute show close communication between Madigan bagman Mike McClain and senior Pritzker staff about hiring decisions and other issues throughout 2019. Federal agents raided McClain’s Quincy home last year amid a continuing investigation into Commonwealth Edison’s relationship with the speaker’s office.
On Feb. 22, 2019, McClain sent an email to Pritzker’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative Affairs Tiffany Newbern.
“Tiffany, I understand that there are still quite a few liaison jobs open for your departments,” McClain wrote. “Have you looked at [redacted]. She is ‘young’ to the dark side but is impressive.”
“Thank you for sharing … I would be happy to bring her in for an interview,” Newbern replied.
After WBEZ released its investigation, top Pritzker staff members fired off dozens of tweets complaining about the coverage, while failing to note any inaccuracies.
Pritzker spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh suggested the investigation was insulting to women and minorities who were hired on merit, not clout. But 24 of the 35 Pritzker hires from Madigan’s list were men, according to the WBEZ reporter. And a majority of the women hired were white.
McClain sent an email to Abudayyeh in April 2019 expressing his sympathies following news that Pritzker was the subject of a federal investigation for removing toilets from his Chicago mansion in order to secure a property tax break. The Cook County inspector general called it a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers.
“I hope you had some time to relax and breathe during the Easter/Passover break. (I am deeply sorry about the alleged federal investigation),” McClain wrote.
Pritzker has not apologized for the clouted hires. More importantly, he has not yet signed into law a single significant anti-corruption reform.
Pritzker was lying on the campaign trail when he tried to distance himself from the speaker’s influence. In the absence of reform, he’s lying about corruption, too.