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Columnist
Courtroom is ground zero for Blago woes, but 'human fallout' takes toll
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/19/2010 12:01 AM

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All of that righteous "I didn't let you down," "working hard for the people of Illinois" and fighting "for the right to be able to do your job" bluster that spews from the mouth of former governor and current felon Rod Blagojevich doesn't sit well with John Russell Ghrist.

A career employee for the Illinois Department of Transportation since Jim Thompson was governor, Ghrist has a stack of papers suggesting he worked hard for the people of Illinois and fought for the right to continue doing his job in Schaumburg. Ghrist was cut loose after Blagojevich became governor and hired political allies.

"These people ruined my life," says Ghrist, 61, who was one year short of qualifying for free health insurance for his retirement when he lost his job in May of 2004. "I just did my job. I had a good career going with the state... Blago and his pals ruined my life after 19 years of good service."

Instead of doing the job he enjoyed and working toward a retirement with full benefits, Ghrist was forced to spend the last six years with no health insurance as he bounced around low-paying jobs that couldn't save him from losing his home to foreclosure and filing for bankruptcy. When he turned 60, Ghrist could buy health insurance through the state. He now rents a cheap apartment in Rockford, and tries to get by on a state pension that doesn't cover the cost of living.

After moving from a career in radio to take a job with the IDOT communication center in 1985, Ghrist methodically rose up the bureaucratic ranks.

"There was a time when I was the 'Voice of IDOT,'" says Ghrist, who lived in Elgin, recorded those traffic announcements heard on low-power radio stations along expressways, and also worked as a dispatcher. "I had long 20-hour shifts during snowstorms, dispatching plows, tow trucks and the police to roadway incidents."

Good reviews led to promotions, and Ghrist used his state benefits to go back to college and receive a bachelor's degree from Indiana University. In 1999, he landed "the job I always wanted" with IDOT's public information bureau, where he fed the media daily news releases, maintained a road construction website, edited the department's newsletters and did whatever the bosses asked him to do.

Ghrist has letters of recommendation, an award for his volunteer efforts and e-mails praising his career with IDOT. But after Blago starting running things, Ghrist lost out to new Blago hires who had weaker resumes, higher salaries and political ties.

"I think I made $37,000 one year with some overtime, but I never made more than $33,500," Ghrist says, adding that he remains "bitter" about what he saw as unqualified people brought in at higher salaries.

"I think it is pretty clear there is human fallout in all of this beyond what anyone has talked about," says Cindi Canary, director of the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "We heard from a number of people complaining about people brought in above them or beside them who didn't have the skills."

While elected officials can hire a few high-placed political appointees who share their vision, giving unqualified political friends the jobs of decent, hardworking civil servants hurts all of us.

When "who is doing a good job and who isn't" gets trumped by political considerations, "there's collateral damage," Canary says.

You'd think Illinois politicians would be smart enough by now not to be so arrogant and ignorant as to use state jobs to reward political backers. You'd hope people offered cushy state jobs would have the good sense to at least request appointments for which they might be qualified.

"It doesn't take a Republican or a Democrat to do a state job, whether it's throwing cold patch in a pothole or writing a news release," says Ghrist, who adds that he didn't flaunt his political beliefs and didn't vote in primaries where he'd have to declare a party. "Good state workers should be hired on their skills and ability to do the work, and not because they know some political insider... When that happens, the taxpayers get ripped off and do not get the service or value that they are paying for."

Another repercussion from the Blagojevich trial is that people assume all politicians are crooked and every state office is filled with incompetent political hacks.

"This has been an extraordinarily demeaning and difficult time for employees in the state," Canary says. "I would say the vast majority of state of Illinois employees are hardworking and competent and thoughtful and good at their jobs."

That used to be the description for Ghrist -- until Blago arrived.