A Closer Look at the Summary Report for Chicago Inspector General’s Office Case #’s 09-0481 and 09-0482

I've been reading a goodly amount of sturm und drang coming from various places about a recent report from Inspector General David Hoffman calling for, among other things, the firing of City of Chicago Commissioner of Human Resources, Homero Tristan. So I decided to take a fresh look at the report at the center of all the commotion. Here it is, in PDF format:

Chicago-igo-report-09-0481-and-09-0482 SUMMARY REPORT, Inspector General’s Office Case #’s 09-0481 and 09-0482, June 26, 2009

The report is 21 pages long, and it's enlightening in many ways. Following is a detailed look at the first four and a half pages, the Introduction and Executive Summary, in the context of some of the things that have been said since the report was released a week and a half ago.

The Office of the Inspector General was asked to investigate this matter by a Federal District Court Judge.

A lawyer representing the former (he resigned earlier this week) Commissioner wrote a letter to the Mayor today. The letter states, among other things:

“The Office of Inspector General is an important,
worthy concept in the fight against public misconduct,” Coulson wrote
to Daley. “But the IG now operates as judge, jury, and executioner,
after conducting exparte investigations.”

But the first paragraph of the report lays out why the investigation exists and what role the IGO is to play:

On March 5, 2009, the Shakman Decree
Monitor (“Monitor”) filed a report with the Court that, among other
things, raised concerns regarding five hiring incidents. In a March
30, 2009 order, the Court stated that the Monitor was to refer the
matters to both the Office of Compliance and the Inspector General’s
Office (“IGO”). On April 16, 2009, the Monitor provided the IGO with
the information she had obtained regarding these five matters. The IGO
has been conducting an investigation into these five matters since that
time.

Keep in mind that the Shakman Decree is covered under Federal Case No. 69 C 2145. "69" as in "1969".  The guy who started the case, Michael Shakman, is a living legend as far as I'm concerned.

Shakman-monitor-case-citation

Anyway, you can see the March 5 Report right here on Shakman Monitor Noelle Brennan's Web site (PDF). Brennan is the attorney responsible for making sure that the decree is followed. On Page One of this report, the Monitor expresses growing frustration with the City's compliance with Federal orders and quotes an example of noncompliance:

This Report is not intended to be a comprehensive account of the Monitor’s activities. Rather, it addresses specific obstacles to the City’s movement toward substantial compliance with this Court’s Orders and the Hire Plan.

Over the past six to nine months, the City’s willingness to work collaboratively with the Monitor’s office has notably decreased, as have its efforts to comply with the Agreed Settlement Order and Accord (the “Accord”).  Rather than working with the Monitor to further the goal of substantial compliance, the City has adopted a “litigation” approach that places less emphasis on establishing actual compliance and more emphasis on framing its legal arguments in its forthcoming motion for substantial compliance. After a DHR staff member reported a problem to the Monitor and the Office of Compliance (regarding a joint project) the Deputy Commissioner directed the following statement to his staff:

This is somewhat of a technical issue.  It does not necessarily need to be reported to the monitor.  While it is good to keep them informed, certain details should be sent out only if necessary.  Sometimes it causes more problems that it’s worth. Going forward, I want all communications to the Monitor and Compliance sent to me FIRST. (emphasis in original).

Pages 7 and 8 of that report go on to specify two incidents that exemplify this "try not to cause trouble by complying with the Shakman Decree" attitude.

Basically, the Monitor is saying, "the City is messing around lately and I'd like you to make them stop that, your Honor". A few weeks later, the judge told the Monitor to ask the IGO to look into this stuff. That's his job, and he was doing it.

So here we've got three entities coming through for us– looking out for the people of Chicago– the Federal District Court, the Shakman Monitor, and the IGO.

It looks like the former Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources made a mistake

Here's a beefy snip from the IGO Summary Report:

In January 2009, an employee with the Chicago Department of Public Health (“CDPH”) was reassigned to a new work location in the Uptown area as a result of the City’s reduction-in- force. The employee opposed the transfer and wanted to be either relocated downtown or laid off in lieu of working in the Uptown location. An alderman wrote a letter to the DHR Commissioner dated January 29 requesting that the employee, who lived in his ward, either be assigned to a downtown work location or be placed on the City’s layoff list until such a position became available.

Under the Court Order, this letter clearly needed to be reported to the Monitor and/or the Office of Compliance. In the Order, the Court explained that it was rejecting the City’s proposed rule that only “improper” contacts from elected officials be reported. The Court held that “the only effective way to monitor attempts to influence hiring on the basis of political reasons” was to require that all contacts by elected officials and the Mayor’s Office regarding individual employment matters be reported. The Order therefore established an unequivocal rule placing an obligation on City employees to report such contacts. 

It seems, based on the March 5 report from the Monitor and the IGO investigation, that the City decided to go ahead and use their incorrect interpretation of the Federal Court order. This is consistent with a bunch of recent statements, including one from the Mayor:

At first, Daley said Tristan didn’t do anything wrong, saying the only thing Tristan did was "set that letter aside." Later, Daley acknowledged to reporters that Tristan should have reported the letter.
 
"But that's a minor violation," Daley said.  "But he didn't do anything intentional, hiding it under a desk or rip it up or do this. He just set it aside and he never acted upon it."

It looks like the court-ordered process was not followed.

That last notion– "He just set it aside and he never acted upon it"– has popped up from all sorts of angles. Here's a snip from an opinion piece from yesterday that defended Tristan and attacked the Inspector General:

In his report, the inspector general urges the firing of Tristan. Among
the charges, Hoffman questions the city's personnel process on whether
to upgrade the salary of a city employee at the request of City Clerk
Miguel del Valle. It is important to note that the city clerk's request
was not only denied twice by the commissioner, but the staffer's pay
was downgraded.

And Tristan's attorney:

Coulson, a former federal prosecutor and the husband of state Rep. Elizabeth Coulson (R-Glenview), disputed Hoffman’s findings and said the evidence shows that Tristan was truthful. He said the Human Resources Department reported the Zalewski letter to its lawyers within 24 hours of receiving it, adding that no favors were done.

What he's saying is, "no favors were done"– i.e. "don't worry about it– we'll let you know when favors are done."

That last piece there is odd– "reported the Zalewski letter to its
lawyers within 24 hours of receiving it". But that's not what the Shakman Decree
states, that's not what the Federal District Court ordered, that's not
what they're supposed to do. Letters must be sent to the Monitor, not the Law Department of
the City of Chicago. No amount of pointing fingers at the
current Inspector General will change that.

Apparently the former Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources knew exactly what the law was

This one's a doozy.

At this point, at least three DHR employees had seen or knew about the letter – the Commissioner, the Assistant Commissioner, and the DHR Liaison. Ironically, it was precisely these three DHR employees who had conducted training for aldermen on this issue in Fall 2008 with the Office of Compliance. At the training, the DHR Commissioner explicitly told aldermen that all contacts from them to DHR regarding individual employment actions would need to be reported to the Monitor and the Office of Compliance. In short, all three of these DHR employees clearly knew the hard-and-fast reporting rule contained in the Court Order.

Nevertheless, none of them reported the letter. Instead, the DHR Liaison forwarded the letter to the Law Department’s lead attorney on Shakman matters to ask whether the letter should be reported. The Law Department Attorney did not get back to the DHR Liaison for some time and did not report the letter until much later.

I haven't seen anyone dispute this point, so we'll leave it at that. If that's all it was, it wouldn't have been that big a deal.

Had this been the extent of the DHR Commissioner’s misconduct, we would have recommended a suspension of one to two weeks.

But it's not all there was.

It seems as if the former Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources lied about making a mistake.

So here's where it gets Nixonian.

When asked about this matter by the Monitor’s Office in a phone conversation on March 3, the DHR Commissioner confirmed what the DHR Liaison said and the emails showed – that he had seen the letter close to the date it was delivered to DHR. He said that he had not reported it because he thought the letter fell in a “gray area.”
*
However, the DHR Commissioner made matters worse once the IGO investigation began. When the IGO conducted a tape-recorded, in-person interview with the DHR Commissioner two months after the Monitor’s report, the DHR Commissioner changed his story. He said that his statements to the Monitor had been mistaken, because he had been flustered, and that in fact he was unaware of the letter until late February when the Law Department Attorney asked him if he had reported it and sent him a copy of the letter.

The report then engages in some plain-language incredulity:

If the Commissioner’s statements to the IGO investigators were correct, then the Commissioner somehow managed to remain completely unaware of the alderman’s letter for four weeks despite the fact that two of his staffers immediately took steps to brief him about the request (as any staffer in this situation would have), and despite the fact that any commissioner in this situation would not ignore two staffers and an assistant who were telling him that he needs to be briefed on an aldermanic issue.

Doesn't really pass the sniff test, basically.

It seems certain that a whole bunch of City employees did their jobs here

One last bit about the nature of the firestorm of defensive defense of the former Commissioner doesn't sit right with me. There's been much "but their requests were denied" talk, but no discussion of the process and people that led to those decisions. This is a long snip, but worth it:

The Monitor discovered that the job duties of Administrative Assistant III’s (“AA III”) in the City Clerk’s Office were very different than the AA III job description. This prompted a “reclassification audit” by DHR. The DHR Analyst assigned to the audit analyzed what the AA III’s did in the Clerk’s Office and concluded that the proper title / job description for these positions was License Enforcement Aide, a lower-graded position. The DHR Commissioner then sent a letter to the City Clerk informing him of this conclusion. The City Clerk wrote a letter back disagreeing with the audit and arguing that the proper title / job description was closer to that of a Revenue Investigator, which would have been a slightly higher-graded position. Although the City Clerk is an elected official, this was obviously a step taken by the City Clerk as a department head and would be a typical step for a department head in this situation.

A few days later, the DHR Commissioner emailed one of his top deputies (with a cc to the DHR Analyst) stating that the Clerk “is upset regarding a reclass[ification decision]. [C]an we address it and make it happen for him, and if we can’t please let me know what the problems are.” Later that day, the DHR Analyst wrote a memo to the Commissioner explaining why the City Clerk’s suggestion was not possible and why her original analysis was correct.

The DHR Commissioner continued to question the DHR Analyst about the findings in the audit, and the DHR analyst was asked to write another memo analyzing the pros and cons of the City Clerk’s proposal. She wrote that there were no pros and explained the cons. A meeting with the City Clerk, the DHR Commissioner, and relevant staff followed. The Clerk’s Office said that the AA III’s were now doing additional duties which were more consistent with an equal or higher-graded position. The DHR Commissioner directed a second DHR analyst to do a “re-audit” in light of this new information. The second analyst reached the same conclusion as the first DHR Analyst. Ultimately, the DHR Commissioner sent another letter to the City Clerk reaching the same conclusion as his initial letter – that the AA III’s would need to be downgraded to License Enforcement Aides.

What I see in those three paragraphs is a whole bunch of people doing their jobs:

  • The Shakman Monitor, reviewing the job description of an obscure but important role in City government and finding it different than the actual job duties performed in that job. This is a central role of the Monitor, since juking job duties is a time-honored method of corruption
  • The City Clerk, Miguel del Valle, going to bat for his employees during tough economic times
  • A DHR Analyst who listens to the arguments and makes reasoned decisions and is able to back them up when questioned by superiors
  • A second DHR Analyst doing another independent audit and coming to the same conclusion
  • The DHR Commissioner, Homero Tristan (credit where it's due), who accepts the analysis of his employees
  • Other employees of both departments spending time trying to honestly define the job for every City worker who holds it

I'm really grateful to these people for this work.

Based on a prior political relationship, the former Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources probably should have been a lot more careful on this one.

Some have tried to make some far-out arguments about politics and policy. Here's text from the guest op-ed piece in the Tribune yesterday. It has the apocalyptic headline: "Hoffman is 'reforming' democracy to death":

Apparently, the appropriate outcome is not important to Hoffman. He issued his stern reprimand over Tristan's due diligence in the matter in order to soothe his own sensitivity toward "perceptions of bias." Hoffman questions the commissioner's integrity based on Tristan's "prior political relationship" with this and other elected officials and on Tristan's past involvement in politics.

Following this backward logic, the primary credential for public service is for officials to have had no prior political relationships and involvement. Only then, the report implies, can the public infer a lack of bias from its civic leaders. Ignore the individual integrity or the fact that their connections never resulted in any special considerations.

But this is what the report actually says:

Because the City Clerk is an elected official, his contacts with DHR about the reclassification audit fall within the language of the Court Order requiring that such contacts be reported. Nevertheless, the DHR Commissioner failed to report any of the City Clerk’s contacts to the Monitor or the Office of Compliance. This violation of the Court Order is significant when considered in light of the DHR Commissioner’s prior political relationship with the City Clerk – the Commissioner was the head of a political action committee that endorsed and financially supported the City Clerk and other candidates in the 2007 municipal election. This should have made the DHR Commissioner especially sensitive to perceptions of bias and led him to report the contacts.  It should have also prompted him to interact with his staff more carefully, as his actions relating to the reclassification audit could have reasonably been perceived as pressure to grant the City Clerk’s request.

This is not a slash-and-burn report. This is a reasonable summation. We have a Director of Human Resources for a municipal government working under Federal decree that is designed to stop decades of illegal political hiring. Expecting that government worker to follow the process proscribed by a Federal decree is not radical– it's normal. And when normal things are termed "reckless", we have doublespeak that cannot stand.

It's great for individuals in government to have integrity, but it's even better when a governing process has integrity. That way, a government can withstand individuals with lack of integrity over time. In this instance, it seems the HR processes had integrity, but the process for reporting communications from elected officials did not.

And the more people jump up and down, pointing agitatedly at someone else, the more I wonder why they're doing that.

One thought on “A Closer Look at the Summary Report for Chicago Inspector General’s Office Case #’s 09-0481 and 09-0482

  1. I think you have missed the point, as well as many other “reformers” or “goo-goos”.
    Brennan has been charging the City over $90K per month for the past 3 years – supposedly to find evidence of “political” hiring.
    What she has found are some administrative errors that have nothing to do with precint captains, etc. running the hiring.
    To justify her existence, she in now spreading her jurisdiction far beyond what the Shakman decree is all about.
    Yet the media just laps up whatever she and her co-conspirator Hoffman spits out.

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