How lovely for Carrie Zalewski and Lynne Sered. Governor Pat Quinn recently appointed the two women to plum jobs on state boards that pay six-figure annual salaries. Each woman appears to have solid credentials. But—in the kind of coincidence that seems to happen all too often in Illinois—each woman also has a powerful connection: Their husbands happen to be state lawmakers.
The appointments were made several months ago, but they hit the news—see Dave McKinney’s report in Wednesday’s Chicago Sun-Times—only after the state senate confirmed both appointments. Carrie Zalewski, 31, the wife of Representative Michael Zalewski (D-Chicago), got a $117,043 slot on the five-member Illinois Pollution Control Board. Lynne Sered, 49, the wife of Senator Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston), was reappointed to chair the five-member Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. Her annual salary is $104,358.
The Pollution Control Board has another small claim to fame—a cameo appearance in the federal case against former Governor Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges. It seems that Blago once eyed the board as a potential place to park his wife, Patti. According to the Prosecution’s Evidentiary Proffer, in a section titled “Efforts to Obtain Employment for Blagojevich’s wife,” Blago’s chief of staff talked the governor out of appointing Patti to the post. “[He] explained to Blagojevich that the Pollution Control Board met regularly and involved considerable work, which Blagojevich said was not the type of paid position that he was looking to get his wife.”
Such ethically dubious connections rankle Dan Duffy, a Republican state senator from Lake Barrington, who tried to put the brakes on the appointments of Zalewski and Sared. He told me in a telephone interview that both appointments “smell of pay to play” and that he asked Sered if—given the cuts to the ranks of teachers, police, and firefighters in Illinois—she would be willing to take a 5- to 10-percent pay cut. She wouldn’t, he said. He voted against both women, but their appointments were easily confirmed—Sered by a vote of 45-1 (Duffy was the lone dissenter) and Zalewski by 44-5.
Calling Springfield a “fraternity” in which he does not belong, Duffy said he undergoes “workplace bullying” for raising concerns over what he thinks are outlandish conflicts. For the most part, he added, his Republican colleagues remain silent.
Both women seem qualified for the jobs. First appointed to the education board in 2000 by Governor George Ryan and named its chair in 2004 by Blagojevich, Sered is a lawyer who served as counsel to a member of the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. Zalewski is an engineer and a lawyer, most recently an environmental compliance attorney with the Illinois Department of Transportation—a job that paid her a bit more than half of what she’ll now make.
Yet the appointments of both women create at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, given that the man who installed them will look to their husbands for support to get his programs approved. Michael Zalewski, whose father is alderman of the 23rd Ward, told an Associated Press reporter that he talked to Quinn’s staffers about his wife’s great qualifications for the job. Lynne Sered told me in an e-mail that she met with Jerry Stermer, Quinn’s chief of staff, and Julie Smith, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, last year to “discuss agency matters as well as my request for reappointment.”
Carrie Zalewski returned my call but said she did not want to “be on the record commenting” about her appointment. Sered, reached at her office, laughed when I asked if this was a full-time job. She says she works five days a week on the education board, sometimes from home. (State board members are prohibited by statute from holding other jobs—though previously they had been allowed to.)
The education board, according to its website, administers the state law that “establishes the right of education employees to organize and bargain collectively . . . investigating, hearing and remedying unfair labor practices by educational employers and unions. . . .” Meanwhile, the pollution board “is responsible for adopting Illinois’ environmental regulations and deciding contested environmental cases,” its website says.
Given our state’s financial and ethical morass, one might have thought that Governor Quinn would avoid handing out lucrative jobs that raise ethical red flags. A call to Quinn’s press office yielded the following statement: “Carrie Zalewski and Lynne Sered are qualified individuals whose experience and professionalism made them the best candidates available for the posts to which Governor Quinn appointed them. They will use their expertise to serve the people of Illinois in their appointments.”
In all this, where was Senator Bill Brady, Quinn’s Republican opponent in the gubernatorial race and a frequent critic of politics as usual who recently called for Quinn to “fumigate” state agencies? He’s listed as “not voting” in roll call tallies for both appointments. A call to his spokeswoman was not returned by post time.