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New Recorder of Deeds may have violated ‘Shakman Decree’

Sunday, December 02, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by Robert Hergurth and Dane Placko

Karen Yarbrough didn’t waste time in exerting clout at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office, which she was elected to oversee earlier this month. In fact, she didn’t even wait until she was elected. In September, six weeks before the Nov. 6 general election that saw Yarbrough voted into the county post, she tried to halt hiring at the agency until she was able to take office, according to documents reviewed by the Better Government Association and FOX 32, and interviews. The suspicion was Yarbrough, a Maywood Democrat who has been a state legislator, wanted to fill any open jobs with her political supporters. The problem: Aside from the brazenness of trying to influence an agency she didn’t technically run yet, Yarbrough may have violated a federal court order known as the “Shakman Decree,” which is intended to minimize politically motivated hiring, firing and promotions in local government, according to the documents and interviews. Of the 200 or so jobs in the recorder of deeds office — which keeps real estate records relating to sales and foreclosures — only a half dozen can be filled with political appointees, under the court order. The rest of the jobs are supposed to be filled objectively.  On Sept. 20, the office publicized a job opening to find someone to help run the agency’s mapping division, a hire that’s supposed to be devoid of political considerations. The next day, Yarbrough campaign aide Bill Velazquez met with a top recorder’s office employee named Darlena Burnett to relay that Yarbrough “was displeased with the recent posting,” according to a report filed by a court-appointed monitor. What’s more, Velazquez wanted the agency “to cease attempting to fill any and all vacant positions through the remainder of its administration,” the report stated. The report relayed that on Sept. 26, Yarbrough wrote an email to Burnett saying Yarbrough was “extremely disappointed that several high-level hires are being made.” Burnett, wife of Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), is the No. 2 person in the recorder’s office, behind retiring Recorder Eugene Moore. Her job is among the half-dozen positions that can be filled with political appointees, so she could rightfully be worried about losing her job under Yarbrough. Although Burnett said that wasn’t her motivation — she was trying “to extend some level of cooperation” — she reversed course and decided not to fill the mapping job or six other non-political posts, the report stated. Burnett’s actions were “plain violations” of the Shakman Decree, the report stated, and the county’s inspector general began an investigation. Yarbrough didn’t return calls from reporters. However, her aides relayed that Yarbrough’s intentions were pure, designed to halt eleventh-hour political hiring by Moore. Yarbrough “wanted to be sure that . . . she would not inherit more problems created by her predecessor’s office,” Velazquez said via email. The agency “has a history of political patronage hiring and blatant violations of the Shakman Decree.” That’s true, and why the recorder’s office is subject to the Shakman Decree — named for attorney Michael Shakman, whose 1969 lawsuit challenged the patronage system and resulted in court-sanctioned agreements limiting political hiring. Moore denied trying to pack the rolls on his way out the door and said Yarbrough wanted to halt hiring so she could put more of her people on the county payroll. Could her intrusion into hiring get her into trouble? That’s unclear. But those who run afoul of the court order can be found in contempt of court. Yarbrough takes office Monday.


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