A Cook County committee is set to approve a $165,000 settlement for a woman fired after she objected to being overruled in her recommendation for the selection of a watchdog charged with helping to keep politics out of hiring in the office of then Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough.
Jeannette Soto was the director of human resources in the recorder’s office, and in late March of 2017 she was tasked with helping to find a new director of compliance for that office, according to the suit, which was filed in 2018.
The director of compliance job oversees employment practices in the office and works with a federal monitor as part of a Shakman decree, which aims to keep politics of hiring and the internal affairs of county and city government.
Yarbrough, who is now Cook County clerk, contends she had nothing to do with firing Soto.
But Soto says Yarbrough and Erwin Acox Jr., who was the chief of human resources at the time, discriminated against her politically and, during the search for a new director, Acox involved himself at multiple points in the process even though he wasn’t supposed to, according to court filings.
Acox asked Soto to provide him with a list of the candidates she’d selected so he could “check [her] work,” telling her that she hadn’t categorized the qualified candidates correctly, court filings say.
He also asked to see Soto’s rankings, despite having to recuse himself during the interview process because he knew some of the candidates. Though she was uncomfortable, Soto did show Acox the rankings, according to court filings.
When Soto’s second choice for the job was chosen, she explained to Acox that she needed a letter from Yarbrough explaining why the first-ranked candidate wasn’t chosen.
Acox asked for the interview materials for the chosen candidate and others. Soto pushed back saying, “I thought you recused yourself from the [interview] process.”
Soto then spoke to Matt Pryor, the counsel for the compliance administrator for the office, about the selection, and Pryor said it was “not proper for Acox to be involved in the selection of Kevin Thomas,” the candidate Soto ranked her No. 2 choice, according to court filings.
Hours later, Pryor recommended Soto be officially in charge of the hiring process of the new director of compliance — because Acox recused himself— and requested she suspend that process until concerns “regarding the hiring process for the new” director were addressed, according to court filings. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, which represents the recorder’s office, agreed to the recommendation.
The next day, “Acox and Yarbrough terminated the Plaintiff’s employment for the stated reason that she was an ‘at will employee’, ‘it was not working out,’ and that Plaintiff was still within her 6-month probationary period,” according to the complaint.
Soto had no idea she was on a probationary status and alleged the two “retaliated against Plaintiff for making complaints to the [Recorder Compliance Administrator] and participating in an investigation of political discrimination when they knowingly, willfully or recklessly terminated Plaintiff’s employment.
“Acox and Yarbrough further discriminated against Plaintiff based on politics when they terminated her employment due to her failure to politically support Yarbrough,” court filings say.
A report by the county’s Independent Inspector General also found that Soto “was retaliated against for taking disciplinary action against a political hire.”
Yarbrough, who was elected to the county clerk position in 2018, isn’t a fan of the Shakman decrees that govern county offices, such as the Recorder of Deeds. She previously told the Sun-Times the goalposts to end federal oversight were moved “on a regular basis.”
In November, Michael Shakman, who gave his name to the government watchdog decrees, accused Yarbrough of running an “illegal patronage employment system” less than a year into her first term in the office.
Yarbrough called those allegations “preposterous” and “outrageous.”
“I don’t have the time or the inclination to deal with that kind of thing,” she said at the time. “I have an office to run, people who are depending on me to do the right thing for the right reason. … Let me just say this is purely personal.”
Acox and Soto did not respond to requests for comment about the settlement.
Yarbrough said she was dismissed as a defendant in the case because she “had no role in [Soto’s] termination.” Records show Yarbrough was dismissed from the case in November, about a month before the case was settled.
But Soto’s lawyer, Ed Fox, disputed Yarbrough’s statement, telling the Sun-Times in an email “that was not the reason that she was dismissed.”
Fox said he was “uncomfortable” talking about the settlement agreement further.
The settlement will come before the county’s Finance Committee at its Wednesday meeting. If passed there, it will go before the full Board of Commissioners Thursday for final approval.