WE ARE ILLINOIS
Quinn's chief of staff resigns amid ethics probe
By Dave McKinney - Chicago Sun-Times
Gov. Pat Quinn’s chief of staff resigned Sunday after the Chicago Sun-Times posed questions about a probe of three politically oriented correspondences sent from his government e-mail account in possible violation of a state ethics law.
In tendering his resignation, Jerry Stermer, 67, said he did not want to have findings against him by former Executive Inspector General James A. Wright overshadow the work of the governor, who is in a difficult election battle against Republican Bill Brady.
“The people of Illinois must have full confidence in the leadership of their state, and I will not be a distraction in achieving that goal,” said Stermer, one of the two highest-ranking administrators under the governor. His annual salary is $150,000.
“Gov. Quinn has built his career on the belief that government must be honest and accountable. Today, I am holding myself accountable for a mistake I alone made,” he said in a statement.
Quinn removed Wright Aug. 13, the same day the governor was briefed by his staff about findings against Stermer by the executive inspector general.
Wright concluded that Stermer “engaged in prohibited political activity” and encouraged Attorney General Lisa Madigan to file a complaint against him before the state Executive Ethics Commission, according to a confidential report written by Wright and obtained by the Sun-Times.
Quinn publicly justified his ouster of Wright, who had held his post since 2005, by noting he was an appointee of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and that it was “time for a change and a new direction.” At that time, Quinn made no mention of Stermer’s situation, and aides to Quinn said the governor’s office had been looking to replace Wright for more than a year.
On Sunday, Quinn’s office affirmed that Wright’s firing had no relationship to the executive inspector general’s investigation of Stermer.
“The replacement was not in response to this or any other specific OEIG report, and these events are in no way connected,” a statement from Quinn’s office said.
But Wright, whose term expired two years ago, said Sunday he still is unclear about the reasoning behind “my firing” and, without mentioning Stermer, did not shut the door on the possibility his office’s work might have played a factor in his ouster.
“If there is more to my firing than the expiration of my term, it is for you, the press, to investigate and make that determination on behalf of the people of Illinois,” Wright said in a written statement to the Sun-Times.
Stermer, Quinn’s chief of staff since February 2009, actually initiated a complaint with Wright’s office Jan. 12 to report that campaign-related e-mails he sent “inadvertently” last October and December from his state-issued BlackBerry or personal computer may have broken state ethics laws.
“While my intention was not to do anything wrong, I recognized that a mistake was made and quickly disclosed this information to the governor’s ethics officer -- a former assistant U.S. attorney -- who recommended that I provide the information to the OEIG for appropriate investigation,” Stermer said. “I voluntarily provided the information to the OEIG for investigation, and made it clear that I was prepared to accept the consequences for my mistakes.”
The first of Stermer’s alleged missteps came last Oct. 11 in a response to an e-mail sent a day earlier from the Quinn campaign’s media consultant, John Kupper. He wanted to formulate a response to an expected argument from Democratic gubernatorial rival Dan Hynes about Quinn being a “tax and spender,” the Wright report said.
Kupper, a senior partner with the AKPD media firm, told those to whom he’d sent the campaign e-mail that an effort was afoot to show the governor had “implemented more budget cuts than any other governor in Illinois history,” the report said.
Using his state e-mail account a day later, Stermer promised Kupper he would gather data from the governor’s budget office to prove that point. A few minutes after answering Kupper, Stermer e-mailed Budget Director David Vaught to inquire about “the total that Gov. Q has cut from the state budget since taking over,” the report said.
Stermer also cited a need in the e-mail to Vaught to “be on the same page” with state Senate President John Cullerton, who placed the total amount of budget cuts at $3 billion in a newspaper letter to the editor. Stermer’s e-mail to Vaught was copied to two Quinn campaign operatives and a senior adviser in Quinn’s government office, Wright’s office said.
“It is clear that he [Stermer] intended to use the budget figures for campaign purposes and merely wanted to ensure that the campaign was not embarrassed by providing inaccurate numbers to the press,” Wright said.
Last week, Kupper’s firm, AKPD, stopped working for Quinn’s campaign, saying the company’s approach to media was “incompatible” with the governor’s.
Last Dec. 6, Stermer was contacted by Quinn campaign staffer Elizabeth Austin and asked for input, along with others, on a list of proposed responses to a Chicago newspaper’s candidate questionnaire.
“Stermer responded to Austin, complimenting her on her work and making one suggestion for a change in the response to the Medicaid question,” Wright’s report stated.
Illinois’ ethics law prohibits the use of state equipment to prepare or review candidate questionnaires.
Quinn’s office did not have an immediate answer on who would be elevated to replace Stermer, the former longtime head of the kids advocacy group, Voices for Illinois Children. A spokeswoman said that decision would be made “shortly.”
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