Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s IDOT secretary violated rules by letting high-ranking officials delegate duties to keep job options open, IG finds

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s transportation secretary violated a long-standing policy by allowing high-ranking officials in his department to delegate certain job duties so they would avoid triggering a revolving-door prohibition that could limit their job prospects once they left the agency, according to a state inspector general report released Tuesday.

Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Omer Osman personally approved “blanket recusals” of certain duties for at least three employees who reported to him during his three-decade career at the agency, a direct violation of a policy prohibiting the practice. according to the report from the Office of Executive Inspector General.

Osman also gave investigators conflicting information about his knowledge of the policy and how common it was for employees to recuse themselves from specific job duties.

The IG’s office found the policy was not followed by employees “in the highest ranks of IDOT.”

“Such extensive efforts to evade important revolving door protections is particularly troubling, given the significant amount of contracting that IDOT does in Illinois, not to mention the burden this can place on other employees or the possibility that those employees may not have the authority to conduct the delegated duties.” the report, dated July, 9, 2021, states.

IG reports often are made public long after they’re completed because of a required review process.

The report recommended the governor’s office “take appropriate action regarding Mr. Osman” and work with IDOT to make sure “employees are working to the state’s interest and not abdicating their duties for a year regarding all vendors in order to preserve their own speculative employment prospects.”

Pritzker, who has lavished praise on Osman during public appearances on major projects being funded through the governor’s $45 billion “Rebuild Illinois” infrastructure program, reappointed Osman after winning a second term in November.

Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for the Democratic governor, on Tuesday defended the decision to retain Osman while not taking any disciplinary action.

“The secretary worked closely with our office to ensure the agency revamped its processes and did everything we asked in an effort to change the very long-standing approach that he inherited,” Abudayyeh said in a statement. “That process is ongoing and the department is engaged in those efforts.”

IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said the agency “has welcomed the opportunity to clarify and reinforce its policies and processes regarding revolving door requirements,” including the addition of a deputy chief counsel position that also serves as ethics officer.”

Tridgell’s response did not address a question about Osman’s conflicting statements to investigators.

Under a measure approved by lawmakers during their lame-duck session in January and signed by Pritzker, Osman’s salary jumped nearly 8%, to $200,000 per year.

The inspector general launched the investigation after an IDOT employee, as required by department policy, notified the office in fall 2020 that he had received job offers from three consulting firms that were IDOT vendors. In his paperwork, the employee wrote that he “did not approve consultant change orders” or “participate in consultant selection within the last year.”

That case, along with a separate anonymous complaint alleging widespread use of the blanket recusal practice among the agency’s professional staff, raised concerns for the inspector general’s office.

The state’s revolving-door law prohibits certain employees from taking jobs with state vendors if they have “personally and substantially” played a role in awarding or administering a contract valued at $25,000 or more within the prior year, among other restrictions.

The law also allows employees to recuse themselves from such decisions if they’re in active conversations with a specific potential employer. But IDOT policy specifically states that the agency will not grant “blanket recusals during an employee’s final year of department employment regarding all possible future employers for the purpose of avoiding all possible application of the revolving door ban.”

A blanket recusal is precisely what Osman approved in the case of a worker identified in the IG report as “Employee 1.” The employee informed the agency of his intent to retire, and began recusing himself from a number of duties before “three consulting firms identified in his revolving door forms contacted him to ask if he would be interested in positions.”

He told the IG’s office “that previous IDOT employees had recused themselves, and that this practice had been going on for years, since the revolving door rules took effect.”

Illinois Transportation Secretary Omer Osman, center, speaks during a press conference on June 28, 2019, at the Joliet Waste Water Treatment Facility in Joliet, Ill., near the I-80 bridges over the Des Plaines River to promote the "Rebuild Illinois" plan of Governor J.B. Pritzker, third from right.

Illinois Transportation Secretary Omer Osman, center, speaks during a press conference on June 28, 2019, at the Joliet Waste Water Treatment Facility in Joliet, Ill., near the I-80 bridges over the Des Plaines River to promote the “Rebuild Illinois” plan of Governor J.B. Pritzker, third from right. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

During three separate interviews with the inspector general’s office, Osman gave conflicting information about how commonplace it was for employees to recuse themselves from a whole set of job duties, according to the report.

In a September 2020 interview for a previous investigation, Osman said he didn’t think it was common practice and that “I don’t think the department will grant somebody … that request because potentially 12 months down the road, I am going to be working for that company.”

But during an interview for the blanket recusal investigation the following spring, he said he was aware that it was commonly done and that such arrangements were typically made verbally rather than in writing, according to the report.

Osman told investigators he became aware of the department’s policy prohibiting the practice after he heard “Employee 1” had been interviewed the previous fall.

The secretary also said in the April 2021 interview that he thought “blanket recusals” involved stepping away from all procurement-related duties. Other IDOT employees told investigators they thought the policy prohibited delegation of all their jobs duties.

The inspector general’s report called such interpretations “nonsensical.”

“No state employee requires a policy to understand that employees cannot abdicate all of their work duties and somehow continue employment,” the report says.

In a letter to the inspector general last spring, an attorney with Pritzker’s office outlined steps that had been taken to address the problem. Among other measures, those steps include requiring approval from supervisors, the agency’s ethics officer and other high-ranking officials “to ensure that recusals are tailored, that blanket recusals are not approved, and the appropriate scrutiny is provided.”

The letter acknowledges Osman “did not manage the revolving door process effectively” but insists he “did not intentionally violate IDOT policy.”

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May 2, 2023 at 05:21PM

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