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Cook County to start paying awards in illegal political hiring, promotions
4 people will receive more than $100,000 each

Friday, September 26, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Laurie Cohen

Cook County will pay more than $100,000 each to four victims of illegal political patronage as part of 108 awards announced Thursday by a court-appointed hiring monitor.

Julia Nowicki awarded about $3 million to people who lost out on jobs and promotions because of politics between August 2004 and February 2007.

The awards, ranging from $250 to $323,000, will be paid by the county in the next 60 days.

One of the biggest—$130,000—went to Margaret Bageanis, an administrative assistant in the county's Animal Control Department since 1988.

Bageanis said that for years she did the job of her boss, the department's business manager, because it was held by a series of political appointees who weren't doing the work. Bageanis, 62, later went on disability leave for stress.

She said "the weight of the world" had been lifted from her shoulders by the award, even though she didn't feel she was fully compensated for years of being underpaid.

Many other county workers face similar stress due to politics, according to Bageanis. "It's a shame they have to work under these conditions," she said.

Nowicki did not identify award recipients but described several instances of illegal hiring that resulted in awards, included two that apparently occurred under
Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

One employee who lost her job in a departmental reorganization saw her duties shifted to a politically connected co-worker. The co-worker was supposed to be laid off due to 2007 budget cuts but stayed on after her personnel records were backdated to show a transfer instead of a layoff, according to Nowicki.

In another case, a worker had to perform the tasks of an inept political hire. Both had their jobs cut in 2007, but the politically connected employee was hired back in a position that wasn't covered by restrictions on political hiring.

Stroger, who took office in December 2006, has said repeatedly that he knows of no illegal hiring during his administration. He has said that he has worked hard to clean up any abuses left over from the administration of his late father, longtime board President John Stroger.

Todd Stroger's office released a list showing who got money along with a statement Thursday that the "vast majority" of the claims occurred before the current president's tenure and that he has "taken significant strides" to reform employment practices.

Nowicki, a former Cook County Circuit judge, has contended that Stroger needs to do far more to convince her that the era of county patronage hiring is over.

Most county hiring is supposed to be free from politics under a civil court order in the landmark Shakman case. The federal judge overseeing that case appointed Nowicki in late 2006, two months after
FBI agents raided county offices as part of a criminal probe into illegal hiring. There have been no charges in that ongoing case.

The county got a hiring monitor more than a year after a similar official was appointed to oversee jobs at City Hall. At the city, awards were capped at $100,000, and 1,427 people divided a settlement fund of $12 million.

Five officials in
Mayor Richard Daley's administration have been convicted for their roles in a massive job-rigging scheme that rewarded the mayor's allies with jobs and promotions. Some of the instances described by Nowicki on Thursday mirror the kinds of abuses alleged by prosecutors in the City Hall fraud case.

In one instance, a worker was entitled to a promotion under union guidelines but lost out to a political rival based on a recommendation from the 8th Ward, the Stroger family's power base. The union declined to help the loser, saying it did not get involved in politics.

Nowicki received a total of 220 claims. She said some were not allowed because the alleged violations occurred outside of the specified time period, including one applicant who interviewed for a job in 2000.

The applicant was asked only one question: "Do you know anyone who works for the county?" When she said she didn't, she was told to leave and was not offered the job.

Tribune reporters Steve Schmadeke and Robert Becker contributed to this report.



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