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Note shows Gov's office sought favorable vote for hire
Associated Press

Gov. Rod Blagojevich

 

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Published: 3/31/2008 12:16 PM | Updated: 3/31/2008 3:12 PM

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SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Rod Blagojevich's legislative aide told colleagues he might get a favorable vote from a senator if the administration hired the lawmaker's secretary, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press.

The November 2003 e-mail from Joseph Handley to Blagojevich's patronage office seeks confirmation that the administration planned to transfer an Agriculture Department employee, Tim Kraft, to the transportation agency -- into a position that by law should be filled on merit, not politics.

Taking his place would be Rhonda Wood, Springfield-based secretary to then-Sen. Larry Walsh.

"If this can be confirmed, it helps me w/Walsh on important vote," Handley, then Blagojevich's legislative liaison, wrote in the e-mail obtained by the AP.

The note offers a new look at hiring in the Blagojevich administration, which is under federal investigation for possibly violating laws that prohibit hiring based on politics and require military veterans be given first chance at jobs.

The administration routinely accepted job recommendations from legislators after Democrat Blagojevich took office in 2003. Friends and campaign contributors won hundreds of state jobs -- even those supposedly filled on merit.

But the e-mail hints for the first time that the governor's office hoped to win legislative approval for its initiatives by handing out payroll plums.

Walsh, who tried to help Wood get promoted to the legislative liaison post, said he was unaware of Handley's note to patronage chief Joseph Cini and doesn't know what legislation Handley had in mind. Now a lobbyist, Handley declined comment.

One of the bigger issues facing the Legislature in its fall 2003 session was tougher ethics legislation. Blagojevich had vetoed a version earlier he called too weak.

Walsh, who chuckled when a reporter read him the e-mail, said he told the administration -- probably Handley -- that Wood was qualified and interested, but never heard anything more. He said he wouldn't have changed a vote had she gotten hired.

"It don't offend me," said Walsh, an Elwood Democrat who left the Senate after his 2004 election as Will County executive. "I would never have known what the vote would have been if there was one, and if it was a vote that I thought was a bad vote, I had no problem in voting against the administration."

Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said the administration does not trade jobs for votes.

Wood did not leave her job. She remains at the Senate. Kraft was transferred to a different job at Agriculture in November 2004, replaced as legislative liaison by a state representative's son, who was hired as an "intern" even though he was already another agency's liaison. Neither Wood nor Kraft returned calls for comment.

In response to the e-mail, Jennifer Thomas, a Cini assistant, laid out the process by which Kraft would be hired at the Department of Transportation into a job protected by a court ruling known as Rutan, which prohibits hiring or firing for most state jobs based on political affiliation. The law requires interviews for all eligible candidates.

"Tim needs to apply for the position and go through a Rutan interview and be the most qualified candidate of those who applied," wrote Thomas, who testified for the prosecution earlier this month about outside influence on state hiring in the federal fraud trial of Blagojevich fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko.

Even though Handley suggested Kraft's move was preordained, Ottenhoff said Thomas' response "reinforces that the position would go to the most qualified candidate. That's how it should be."

She did not explain why the governor's aide responsible for legislative proposals would have a need to "confirm" that specific individuals would get administration jobs.

Thomas left state government in January. A call to her home went unanswered.

For years, even after federal prosecutors issued subpoenas in 2005 for state employment records, the administration claimed it hired people based on qualifications, not clout. Blagojevich aides said they did not review applicants' names for jobs that are supposed to be insulated from politics.

But a series of Associated Press articles in 2006 showed maneuvers the administration used to get around Rutan and veterans' preference laws and that top aides were signing off on individual names, even for protected jobs, as late as fall 2004.

One such tactic was to hire preferred candidates as "interns," a position that could be filled without giving veterans preference. That happened when Kraft was promoted to Agriculture's buildings and grounds chief in November 2004.

Taking his spot as legislative liaison was Nicholas Reitz, son of Rep. Dan Reitz, D-Steeleville. Even though he had been a full-time legislative liaison in another state agency, Reitz was hired as a $40,000 "intern."

The message

Text of e-mail circulated Nov. 12, 2003, among Joseph Handley, then the legislative liaison for Gov. Rod Blagojevich; Joseph Cini, then Blagojevich's chief of patronage; and Cini's assistant at the time, Jennifer Thomas:

• • •

4:45 p.m., Handley to Cini, Thomas, Scott Doubet, also at the time working in the governor's office, and others:

"Joe: making sure we are on the same page. Tim Kraft moves to IDOT. Rhonda Wood goes into leg. liaison spot at Ag. If this can be confirmed, it helps me w/Walsh on important vote. ... "

• • •

5:38 p.m., Cini to Thomas and Doubet:

"Can each of you verify your component

"Thanks."

• • •

6:45 p.m., Thomas to Cini, Doubet and Handley:

"11/12/03 Spoke to Jake Miller regarding Tim Kraft. It is a rutan covered TM (technical manager) VI position in Traffic Safety. IDOT is waiting for Rod Hale to prepare the IPR (paperwork) to open the position. Tim needs to apply for the position and go through a rutan interview and be the most qualified candidate of those who applied."

• • •

Source: Internal e-mail.