Cook County Court Clerk Iris Martinez getting political help from employees

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Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez’s bid for reelection is being helped by political contributions from dozens of her government employees, many of whom donated within months of receiving raises from Martinez in their publicly funded jobs.

The first-term clerk won the office in 2020 after pledging to “adhere to the highest ethical standards” in replacing a scandal-scarred outgoing clerk, Dorothy Brown, whose tenure was marked by various controversies that included criticism she took campaign cash from her employees.

But a Tribune analysis of campaign finance and county payroll records shows Martinez repeating that same political fundraising tactic.

Since Martinez became clerk, 52 circuit court clerk employees have contributed more than $45,000 to Martinez’s three campaign funds. Of those employees, 22 received promotions or significant raises in their clerk jobs just months — sometimes days — before or after making those political contributions. Nearly all the raises were $10,000 or more, the payroll records show.

What’s more, 29 of the employees who contributed to her campaign funds also circulated petitions this fall that helped Martinez secure a spot on the March 19 primary ballot. A total of 86 clerk employees passed petitions for Martinez’s reelection campaign, collecting 831 pages, or 45% of the total signature petition sheets she turned in earlier this month.

Two of those petition circulators now work in the clerk’s inspector general’s office, whose mission is to “detect, deter and prevent corruption, fraud, waste, mismanagement, and misconduct.” The inspector general employees are hired by Martinez and her administration.

Martinez declined to be interviewed by the Tribune for this story. Instead, her political campaign released a statement in which Martinez said she has “never, ever given a raise to anybody in my office, or given them a promotion conditioned on ‘pay to play’ politics.”

While acknowledging in the statement that several clerk’s office employees who received raises or promotions also contributed to her campaign funds or passed petitions for her, Martinez said there was no connection between the government actions and the political work.

“As the famous quote states ‘Correlation, does NOT imply Causation,’” Martinez said in the statement.

“The Office of the Circuit Court of Cook County employs over 1,400 people,” her campaign added in its statement. “Apparently, 6% of those employees choose to volunteer their time to the Clerk’s campaign because they believe in the award-winning job Clerk Martinez has done in implementing COVID safety protocols that save lives, while also cleaning up the corrupt hiring practices of her predecessor and removing the office from federal receivership.”

Still, records show, among those clerk employees who received promotions or raises since Martinez took office were several campaign contributors and even an official who heads two of Martinez’s campaign funds.

Iris Martinez, right, clerk of the  Cook County Circuit Court, speaks to other attendees during a Cook County Democrats slating meeting on at IBEW Local 134 Aug. 15, 2023.

That includes Veronica Claudio, the chair of both the 33rd Ward and the clerk’s campaign fund. She was hired as Martinez’s executive assistant in May 2021 and earlier this year was promoted to executive assistant and scheduler, increasing her annual salary to $95,551 from $74,886. In addition to being the campaign chair, Claudio also contributed $700 to the same two Martinez-run funds and collected 19 pages worth of campaign signatures for Martinez this fall.

The treasurer for all of Martinez’s political committees, Kerry O’Brien, is another executive assistant in the clerk’s office, earning $104,524 this year. O’Brien gathered 18 pages of petition signatures, records show.

Both Claudio and O’Brien did not return messages seeking comment.

An assistant chief deputy clerk who was promoted multiple times during Martinez’s tenure in office and received tens of thousands of dollars in raises gave $300 to Martinez’s 33rd Ward fund and also passed petitions for the clerk, records show. That employee, now a director in the office, currently earns more than $125,000 annually.

In her statement, Martinez said promotions are dictated by county labor regulations and collective bargaining agreements, and that they are overseen by her office’s director of compliance, who must follow anti-patronage guidelines.

Separately elected officials in Cook County can establish salaries for nonunion employees. The vast majority of those who received those significant raises are nonunion.

It is legal for public officials to receive campaign cash and assistance from their government employees as long as solicitations aren’t done during government work hours. Public jobs, promotions and raises cannot be directly tied to the political giving or volunteering. But it’s also a frowned-upon political strategy by government reformers who argue it skirts the line for incumbents to receive campaign cash or services from subordinates reliant on the officeholder for their jobs.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Assessor Fritz Kaegi pledge not to take contributions from employees of the government bodies they run.

Federally convicted former Gov. George Ryan — who in the early 2000s tried pushing back against allegations employees who worked for him when he was secretary of state exchanged driver’s licenses for bribe money that was then pumped into his campaign kitty — even proposed a law banning employees of statewide offices from contributing to their boss’ campaigns.

The law never passed.

Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a campaign finance expert, agreed that correlation is not causation. But he said even the impression of potential corruption can be as damaging to the public’s trust in government as corruption itself.

“What this does raise is both corruption and the appearance of corruption. Those are things you want to avoid because obviously we don’t want corruption in terms of things being illegal. But in terms of the legitimacy of support of the public — for the political process, the legitimacy of the process, (being) willing to participate — the appearance of corruption is as corrosive as corruption itself,” he said.

Iris Martinez, clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, works in her Daley Center office on Jan. 6, 2021.

Asked whether accepting donations and campaign help from employees lived up to her campaign pledge to govern to the “highest ethical standard,” Martinez’s campaign said, “The question is rhetorical and biased, as it does not center on all public officials, just a Latina public official, namely Iris Y. Martinez. As with existing public policies, an employee can attend, volunteer, or support a political party or candidate while off duty and off County premises, consistent with Cook County Board of Ethics guidance.”

But Redfield noted “the converse of that is also true.”

“You’ve got a constitutional right to not participate in politics as a condition of government employment,” he said. “Forcing someone to or threatening someone or pressuring them to contribute, pass petitions, what have you, is again, constitutionally prohibited.”

Martinez’s campaign said its petition passing efforts were “100% volunteer.”

A former state senator, Martinez was elected circuit court clerk in 2020 after Brown decided not to run for reelection following a string of controversies that stained the office’s credibility. Brown, first elected in 2000, was never charged, though others from her administration were. Martinez is now running in the Democratic primary against Mariyana Spyropoulos, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago board member.

Illinois State Sen. Iris Martinez, as a candidate for clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, speaks to reporters as she waits in line to file her nominating petitions for the 2020 primary on Nov. 25, 2019.

In light of pay-to-play allegations in Brown’s administration, a federal monitor began oversight of the office in 2018 to ensure it was compliant with the Shakman decree — a historic federally monitored order for most of the biggest government offices in Cook County that was meant to put policies and procedures in place so that politics aren’t taken into consideration when hiring, firing or disciplining nonexecutive employees.

The office was freed from so-called Shakman oversight in late 2022.

But attorney Michael Shakman, who brought the original anti-patronage case to court in 1969 and whose name became synonymous with hiring oversight in Cook County, said the Tribune’s findings suggest the clerk is “operating a patronage employment system.”

“That a large number of employees of her office, many with salaries in the six figures, are circulating nominating petitions, and many have also recently received significant raises, suggest a quid pro quo relationship,” he said.

Shakman himself was not directly involved in dealing with Martinez while her office was subject to court oversight and he said he respects the principle that all public employees can voluntarily donate or circulate nominating petitions.

“Ms. Martinez may well respond that all the contributions, both financial and by passing nominating petitions, are voluntary,” he said in an emailed statement. “But given the scale of the activities that seems doubtful, at least in many cases.”

Martinez celebrated the end of the Shakman oversight as an “incredible task” that “saved Cook County taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal fees.” But the administrator in charge of overseeing compliance told the judge overseeing the case the release was thanks “in large measure” to a U.S. appeals court ruling months before that effectively directed the end of such monitoring across the state.

The administrator, Susan Feibus, said during the final court hearing that while she thought the clerk was committed to compliance, “many things that other offices have been required to do to reach this day have not been required” in Martinez’s office.

This is not the first time employees from Martinez’s office have helped on the campaign trail: Nearly two dozen of her employees helped pass petitions for 33rd Ward aldermanic candidate Samie Martinez, who is no relation to the clerk. He was defeated by incumbent Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez. Iris Martinez is the Cook County Democratic Party committeewoman in the ward, and Rodriguez Sanchez is running against her in the 2024 primary.

Of the 22 employees who donated to Martinez’s campaign funds and got promotions or raises, 18 came after the office was released from Shakman oversight, a Tribune analysis of county payroll data showed.

The contributions — spread among Martinez’s campaign funds for state central committeewoman, 33rd Ward Democratic committeeperson and Circuit Court clerk — were relatively small. They ranged from $50 to $5,000 and averaged just more than $300, campaign records show.

Those who gave were identified by cross-referencing their names with county payroll records because most didn’t declare themselves as clerk employees in campaign records. State election law allows contributors who give under $500 to withhold stating who their employer is.

Iris Martinez, clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, sits in the lobby after giving a speech at a pre-slating event for the Democratic Party on June 16, 2023, in Chicago.

Most of the largest contributions were transfers from political funds run by clerk employees who are politicians and ran for other public offices, most notably Carmen Navarro Gercone, who ran for sheriff, and Michael Cashman, who ran for the Water Reclamation District.

Now the executive clerk for court operations, Navarro Gercone donated to Martinez’s campaign and also passed petitions for her. She said she was recruited to work in the clerk’s office shortly after Martinez was elected and while Navarro Gercone was still working for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

Navarro Gercone told the Tribune she helped the campaign because it was “important to me to be able to volunteer and donate” and support Martinez for the good work she has done in the office.

Partly because she’d already run for office herself, Navarro Gercone said she knew how to get involved and signed up to be notified of campaign events at Martinez’s 33rd Ward committeeperson’s office.

Emails about volunteer opportunities are sent to her personal email, not her government one, she said, adding that she’s never witnessed any pressure being placed on employees to help with politics.

“I don’t have time for that. That doesn’t happen at work,” Navarro Gercone said.

Noting that the Cook County Democratic Party did not endorse Martinez in 2020 and is backing Spyropoulos in the 2024 primary, Navarro Gercone said she felt some kinship with Martinez. The county party backed Dart over Navarro Gercone last year.

“From trying to run myself,” she said, “I saw what happened” without the support of the party, which typically provides help fundraising, passing petitions, and other campaign help from fellow Democrats. The “support of the people who work for you, who know the kind of work you’re doing, what you stand for, I wouldn’t want that taken from me,” she said.

Martinez’s campaign chalked up that lack of party support to “petty revenge from when the Clerk ran against the party in the 2020 election.”

“Without the benefits of the party slate and organization to get on the ballot, Clerk Martinez is thankful for all of her volunteers, whatever their day job is,” the statement said.

Those who passed petitions largely work six-figure jobs in the clerk’s office, including several assistant clerks or deputy clerks and executive assistants, as well as the office’s chief financial officer and the director of labor relations. The office’s current deputy inspector general and an investigator now in the office helped collect 16 pages of petition signatures.

Many of the petition passers and campaign contributors appear to be “Shakman-exempt” positions in Martinez’s office, which are typically at the executive level and are employees who serve at the will of the public official. Her campaign noted Shakman signed off on the clerk’s office exiting federal oversight, attesting the office had reached substantial oversight.

“Clerk Martinez’s reforms occurred with unprecedented dispatch and reversed conditions in a material way,” the statement said.

Having so many high-ranking employees involved in politics sends an implicit message that volunteering or contributing politically can help individuals climb the ladder at work, Shakman said.

“Though there’s a clear right, if the position is exempt, to do political work and to hire and fire on the basis of political affiliation, it does send a message to rank-and-file who are not exempt that there’s a reward for being a political loyalist,” Shakman said. “That’s not a good message if you want to run an office that’s based on merit.”

The reason for those exempt positions is to allow officeholders to hire people for policymaking and confidential jobs that are aligned with the views and goals of the officeholder.

“It is not to generate campaign contributions or field workers for the officeholder’s political campaign. Yet the effect of the exempt status is to permit a smaller-scale patronage operation,” Shakman said. “It is not illegal, but it is also not good policy.”

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