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Metra files reveal years of political patronage

Published: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 11:33 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 1:57 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO — Files documenting a lengthy history of political patronage hiring at the Chicago area's Metra commuter rail agency reveal that some of Illinois' most well-known politicians routinely recommended job candidates.

The nearly 800 index cards list the names of candidates for jobs, promotions or raises and the powerful politicians weighing in on their behalf over a period from 1983 to 1991. While there's no smoking gun showing illegal activity took place, the files offer a look at Illinois politicians' widespread use of jobs at publicly funded agencies to reward supporters and wield influence.

The existence of the index cards was first made public March 31 by a task force scrutinizing Metra and Chicago's other transit agencies after a former Metra CEO claimed he was forced out for resisting political pressure in personnel and contract decisions. But the panel's report only named Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan as being among the prominent and frequent backers of job candidates.

Copies released Tuesday by Metra in response to Freedom of Information Act requests show many other prominent Democrats and Republicans were named in the cards.

They included Democrats such as late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, late Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch and current Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Among Republicans were former Gov. George Ryan and former Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra.

Since the files date back decades, the intervention of many of those named took place at earlier points in their political careers.

Madigan has acknowledged a recent instance of recommending a raise for someone who had donated to his political campaigns. But his spokesman has dismissed the task force report as "amateurish" while saying the claims over the index cards date back so far that Madigan couldn't be expected to recall if any were true.

Besides Madigan, another name that appears frequently on the cards is former Metra board member Don Udstuen, who often acted as an intermediary.

In one instance, he put forward a referral that apparently came from then-U.S. Rep. George Sangmeister. The card refers to the job seeker as a "good candidate" except that he failed a typing test and a retest.

A notation says the candidate will "keep trying" to pass and "will call us when ready."

The task force that first noted the cards was created by Gov. Pat Quinn to recommend ways to root out political patronage, restore public confidence and improve the operation of Chicago's transit agencies.

Metra has announced reform steps and put in place new leadership.

In a section of its report titled "The Patronage Files," the task force concluded that not all of the referrals were accepted, but that it appeared recommendations from officials with greater weight did result in jobs, raises and promotions.

"While there is nothing inherently improper (much less illegal) about a person recommending someone else for a job or promotion, there is something systemically wrong when such references on behalf of politically connected individuals seem to dominate and control the process to the detriment of better qualified candidates," the report said.

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