Monday, August 21, 2006

Clout wins out in county hiring, too
Copyright bhy The Chicago Sun Times
August 21, 2006

Test scores get changed in Cook County government for the benefit of politically connected job seekers just as they do at Chicago's City Hall, according to a county Highway Department supervisor.

Eric Petraitis, 41, tells the Chicago Sun-Times he felt coerced by his bosses to change the low scores of clouted candidates for county jobs so they could be hired over qualified people.

Petraitis had just finished marking scores for two candidates he interviewed for equipment operator two years ago. One candidate scored very well. The other, Dwayne Robinson, got the lowest score, records show. Petraitis said he got a call from Gerald Nichols, patronage chief for former Cook County Board President John Stroger.

"The ink wasn't dry on my paper," Petraitis said. "The phone rang. It was Gerald Nichols. He said, 'I would appreciate it if you would recommend Mr. Robinson.' He wanted me to recommend the guy that's not qualified. I just sat there, dazed, not knowing what to do. I had already filled it out."

So Petraitis put away the "oral interview evaluation" form with Robinson's low scores and wrote up a new one with better ratings for Robinson -- who he would later learn was active in Stroger's 8th Ward Democratic Organization, he said. He saved the first version, which appears with this story.

Prompted by City Hall trial

Why is Petraitis going public, allowing the Sun-Times to put his name and face in the paper, knowing he risks becoming a pariah at his office? Or even being charged with a crime?

"Nobody has the guts to come forward, so I figured, why not have the guts?" Petraitis said. "At first I was nervous, but I don't care. I'm tired of this garbage. There's good people on these lists that don't get the jobs."

Good candidates being cheated out of jobs is the same point former Chicago Sewers Department official Mary Jo Falcon testified about in May. Her testimony helped convict four City Hall officials, including Mayor Daley's patronage chief. Though her superiors never explicitly told her to change test scores, she said she knew that is what they wanted when they handed her names of people to be hired.

Federal authorities are investigating similar practices in Gov. Blagojevich's administration. The governor has fired two employees who he says changed scores on their own. They deny that.

Reading about the City Hall corruption trial, Petraitis decided to blow the whistle on similar practices in his office, he said. "There's pretty much a pattern of [the county] doing everything the city is doing."

'Does not make calls like that'

Petraitis is hardly the first Cook County official to accuse Nichols of forcing unqualified employees down his throat.

Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine said in an indictment that Nichols and Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele's new chief of staff, Albert Pritchett, "ordered" underlings to hire ex-con Shirley Glover as fiscal director of the Office of Employment and Training -- from which Glover allegedly stole $180,000.

Nichols and Pritchett allegedly ordered she be hired even though the program's director did not want her and even though she had 10 felony convictions -- for forgery, theft, robbery and related charges -- and a history of using aliases.

Pritchett said he never knew Glover. Nichols at first agreed but then refused to be interviewed for this story. County spokeswoman Chinta Strausberg denied that Nichols calls county officials to push candidates for non-policy jobs or promotions: "He says he does not make calls like that."

Though he rose to what some consider the number three post in county government under Stroger, with an office next to the president's, Nichols keeps a low profile, appearing in none of the hundreds of photos of Stroger and his aides taken by the Sun-Times in the last decade.

Nichols started as a Highway Department employee nearly 20 years ago. His ties to Stroger helped him move up, first as an aide to a former 8th Ward alderman and then, when Stroger was elected president, as a $114,000-a-year aide to Stroger -- his salary still, for unexplained reasons, paid from the Highway Department budget.

County department heads and commissioners have told the Sun-Times for years that Nichols serves as patronage chief. He tells department heads to place people in jobs -- both high-level policy jobs that can be political and also low-level jobs required under the Shakman court order to go to candidates with the highest test scores. Calls to five current and former department heads confirmed that, though none wanted their names used.

"They would transfer people who were bad news in one place -- you just sort of got them -- and if you complained, you were told, 'So what?' " said one former county department head.

Shakman also covers county

"The personnel director of the Highway Department is Bill Krystiniak, the former 23rd Ward alderman -- think that's a coincidence?" said another Highway Department employee who does not know Petraitis. "When they conduct those what I call 'dummy interviews,' they go in front of Krystiniak and one or two other guys, and they fill out the forms. Obviously, he's going to get a call from the 5th floor [Nichols]: 'Here's who to give it to.' "

Stroger's former chief of staff Jim Whigham insisted that Nichols sends all job candidates to the personnel office to fill out application forms and work through proper channels. Department heads and employees laughed when told that.

Steele said she has not figured out what to do with Nichols during her four-month administration.

"I've spoken with Gerald about his position specifically and informed him he might be getting a lateral [transfer]," she said. "I really don't know what all Gerald does. I really need to talk to him about his future. Right now he doesn't really have a role."

The questions about county hiring come as the feds are getting more aggressive against patronage hiring.

During the federal trial of Mayor Daley's patronage chief, Robert Sorich, his attorneys argued that violations of the Shakman decree against political hiring are civil offenses. But prosecutors convinced a judge and jury that rigging test scores and other acts of fraud to get around the Shakman decree were criminal offenses.

Four City Hall employees including Sorich were convicted of mail fraud and other charges this summer, even though they never gave explicit instructions to Falcon and others to rig test scores.

Under a 1998 federal court order, the Shakman decree applies to the county as well, prohibiting employees from being hired or fired for political reasons.

'That's a lie. I scored high'

Petraitis said Nichols did not have to spell out for him what he meant by "I would appreciate it if you would recommend Mr. Robinson." Petraitis had sat in on employee interviews over the years and knew the "blessed" ones needed to be given higher scores.

In June 2001, Krystiniak asked Petraitis to sit in on interviews of road equipment operators looking to be promoted to laborers. "Three of us interviewed eight candidates that day," Petraitis said. "The first couple went fine. We took turns asking questions. We each got a booklet."

Then came Leonard White. Krystiniak "wanted to give the guy high marks," Petraitis said. "I said, 'Wait a minute -- he didn't answer any questions accurately.' I could only talk him down 2 or 3 points. He said, 'OK, how about 20?' [out of 25]."

Petraitis said it became clear to him that White was being clouted a promotion.

"Even though they fudged the scores, they weren't as good as other candidates," Petraitis said. White makes $77,000 a year as a road equipment operator. In a brief interview at his Riverdale office last Thursday, White said he was active in Stroger's organization and said of Petraitis' test-score claim, "That's a lie. I scored high." He waved his hand dismissively and walked out of the office, never taking his cigar out of his mouth.

Lowest possible score

Krystiniak referred questions to his boss, Wally Kos, who referred questions to Strausberg. As with Nichols, Krystiniak denied Petraitis' allegations and refused an interview.

In June 2002, Petraitis was asked to interview 30 candidates for two driver's jobs. He and another supervisor interviewed 15 employees each. Instead of hiring the best-scoring applicants for the positions, the county hired two 8th Warders who had each scored in the middle of the pack, he said. One was Leon Gamble, who had been laid off from the forest preserves. Gamble makes $56,000 a year.

In July 2003, Petraitis interviewed 15 employees seeking a promotion to supervisor. Two employees got perfect scores. But the bosses reached much further down, to the middle of the pack, to pick Alonzo King, an 8th Warder, for the $62,000-a-year job. King said he does "an excellent job" and denied his clout factored in his promotion. Asked if he was active in Stroger's organization, he said, "A little bit. I don't go up there a lot. I know people who are in it."

In June 2004, Petraitis was told to interview Dwayne Robinson and another candidate for the road equipment operator spot.

Robinson fared so poorly in the interview that Petraitis gave him the lowest possible score on "general suitability for the position," noting, "He does not have a Local 150 union card, or completed an apprenticeship as required. Does not have much experience operating equipment. Does not operate equipment at present job. Knows very little about methods of road construction, maintenance and repair. NOT RECOMMENDED FOR POSITION."

The qualified candidate Petraitis would have hired had experience, knew how to work the equipment and had a union card, but no clout.

But then came the call from Nichols that, despite Petraitis' earlier experiences with clout-altered test scores, still took him by surprise, he said.

'Hey, Mr. Alderman'

Soon after Robinson was hired, the 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound soldier in Stroger's 8th Ward Democratic Organization started bragging about his clout, Petraitis said.

"He talks about how he's so involved," Petraitis said. "He was hired as a machinery operator, but he didn't know how to operate anything. He did not know what to do. They could not give him too many assignments."

Petraitis was in the field with Robinson when Robinson's cell phone rang. Robinson said to Ald. Todd Stroger, Stroger's son, "Hey, Mr. Alderman. How you doing?"

The younger Stroger was slated last month by 59 of Cook County's 80 ward and township Democratic committeemen to replace his father on the ballot this November because of the elder Stroger's stroke.

"Every once in a while, I call Dwayne when I have problems with my phone -- he helps me," Ald. Stroger said. "I know him like a neighbor. He is a neighbor. I can only speak of Dwayne from working in the [8th Ward Democratic] Organization. He's a hard worker, dedicated, spends a lot of time making sure the picnic, the back-to-school parade get done."

'You're under no obligation ...'

In a brief interview at his LaGrange Park office last Thursday, Robinson said he thinks he does a good job in his $77,000-a-year post and said he is now a member of the union. He referred further questions to his supervisor standing nearby, Alonzo King.

"He does an excellent job," said King, a fellow 8th Ward organization member.

Asked if he was concerned that Robinson and other 8th Warders were being given a leg up, Ald. Stroger said, "No, I'm not concerned. In the grand scheme of things, there are 27,000 [county] workers, and the number from the 8th Ward can't be that great. There are not that many of them that I run into that are working for the county."

Petraitis is something of an anomaly in county government. He had no political involvement when he graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1987. He was hired anyway and worked his way up to Highway Engineer V, which pays $85,000 a year.

The only political activity he has engaged in is going to John Stroger's $100-a-ticket fund-raisers. He buys a ticket every year from Krystiniak.

"The person in charge of selling tickets is Krystiniak," Petraitis said. "He'd always say, 'Of course, you're under no obligation....' I've been to enough ethics seminars to know you're not supposed to ask on the job. You're certainly not supposed to ask on a company phone. I was asked to put up a sign in my yard."


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