Are We Paying This Guy to Stay Home? | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Are We Paying This Guy to Stay Home?

He's supposed to get his job back, but that probably won't keep him from complaining.

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It looked as though Patrick McDonough had scored a victory in his war against the Daley administration. Fired from his $80,000-a-year water department plumbing job for violating the city's employee residency requirement, McDonough won a favorable ruling on January 17 from a hearing officer for the city's human relations board, who ordered the city to hire him back. The city appealed, and one week later the board upheld the decision.

But order or no order, the city is taking its time sending McDonough back to work. "I should have been back on the job the day after that first ruling, but it's two weeks and running, and they still haven't called me," he says. "Hearing officer's ruling, human relations board's ruling--the hell with that. Daley's the king. He can defy the law."

On the surface McDonough seems like the last guy who'd be a pain in the city's neck. He hails from a family of city workers--his grandfather, grandfather's brother, and father all worked for the city. He himself went to work for the water department in 1999, after spending most of the 90s as a plumber in private practice. "I got the job through family connections," says McDonough, who's 45. "In this town everything is about clout and connections."

The city put him on a three-man crew fixing water hydrants. "I was always a beefer--a guy who speaks out," he says. "My first big beef came in about 2001 when they put us on trucks. They used to let us drive our cars to the job. Then they had this great idea: everyone's got to drive to the work yard and ride a truck to the work site. They packed us in there like cows--seven guys in the back of a truck, elbows to ribs."

McDonough says he complained to Donald Tomczak, then a high-ranking water department official (he would later resign and plead guilty to bribery charges in the hired truck scandal). "I told him we're wasting time and money--it costs a fortune in gas to drive these trucks all over town. He said people are leaving work early--this way we make them stay all day. I thought, great, let's stop one problem by making a new problem."

He had other beefs. "There was this truck on the work yard with one driver, an old Irish guy. It was one of the hired trucks. The city was paying this truck company eight hours a day to have this old guy deliver interoffice mail from one yard to another. I mean, it was the biggest do-nothing job you'd ever seen. But here's the thing: the truck was so bad he couldn't even drive it. The old guy would drive his car and the old truck would be just sitting in the yard. I'm thinking, hey, wait, how come that guy gets to take his car, but I gotta ride in a truck?"

He beefed to the bosses about the truck. When that got him nowhere, he says, he started calling the inspector general's office, the city unit that's supposed to root out corruption and malfeasance. He soon began beefing about other things--harassment at the work site, big shots not showing up to work. Eventually he was feeding tips to reporters from the Sun-Times about incidents connected to the brewing hired truck scandal. "It was all off the record. [Columnist] Mark Brown called me Deep Water," says McDonough. "But people knew. My buddies would tell me, 'Watch it, Pat--they're going to get you.'"

In October 2004 he was hauled into the inspector general's office. "They said they'd received an anonymous tip in August 2003 that I lived outside the city," says McDonough. "What a joke. My personal life's no big secret. My wife and I are separated. She's got the house in Des Plaines; I live in an apartment on Catalpa Street in Andersonville. They can't see guys dealing heroin out of water department plants or hired trucks sitting around work sites doing nothing, but they've got the time to uncover what everyone already knows--my wife lives in Des Plaines."

McDonough is proud of his defiance when the city's inspectors questioned him: "I asked for a lawyer. I didn't answer a lot of their questions. They asked me, 'Where do your mom and dad live?'" (McDonough's parents are partial owners of the apartment building on Catalpa.) "I told them, 'That is none of your business.' They told me they're getting me on residency. I looked at him and said, 'That's the best you can do?'"

On April 1 the city fired him. McDonough hired a lawyer, political gadfly Frank Avila, and his case came before hearing officer Carl McCormick, a former appellate judge. At the hearing, held last fall, Avila counterattacked, arguing that the city had fired McDonough to punish him for blowing the whistle on hired trucks. He called city workers to testify how water department supervisors had harassed them for even talking to McDonough.

The city responded with testimony from six investigators from the inspector general's office. According to them, McDonough didn't really reside at the apartment on Catalpa--it was merely a front enabling him to circumvent the residency requirement. It turned out that up to eight investigators had been tracking McDonough from August 2003, when the tip came in, until October 2004, when the field investigation ended. According to their testimony, they sat in their cars for hours at a time and watched the house in Des Plaines or the apartment on Catalpa. Not once did they see McDonough coming or going from Catalpa. But they spotted him at the Des Plaines house on many occasions.

During his testimony McDonough admitted he often stays at the house in Des Plaines. "We're separated--not divorced. Sometimes my kids need me to be there," he says. "But I live in Chicago. It's my legal residence." To establish his Catalpa residency he proffered bills, property tax statements, credit cards, letters from water department officials, and a voter registration card.

But his case ultimately came down to an embarrassing confession city workers had to make under Avila's cross-examination: they had never watched the back door of his apartment on Catalpa. Despite having spent hundreds of hours in the field, they couldn't say for certain that McDonough hadn't slipped in and out of the apartment building through the rear entrance. "The surveillances at the Catalpa address are flawed and inadequate," McCormick wrote. "The surveillances cannot negate the fact that [McDonough] may have entered and exited the Catalpa premises via an entrance/exit not under the observation of the investigators. The negative surveillances of Catalpa have little, if any, evidentiary value in this case."

So the city lost, though McCormick gave a little something to both sides. While he dismissed McDonough's allegations that the city pursued the residency case as "part of a scheme to retaliate against him," he wrote that "it is difficult to envision a work site that is more indecent to work in than the Department of Water Management facility described in these proceedings. . . . It is indeed akin to a hellish nightmare." And though he rescinded McDonough's discharge, he also suspended him for six months "as discipline for his failure to cooperate with the Inspector General's investigation." Since McDonough's been out of work for nine months, McCormick's order that he "be reinstated and otherwise made whole in his employment status with the City, including back pay" means that the city owes McDonough three months' pay.

Actually, it's three months and counting. Law department spokesman Jennifer Hoyle says the city intends to rehire McDonough while they decide whether to appeal the human relation board's ruling to the Cook County Circuit Court. But "it takes time to work out the details," she says. "We may have him back [soon.]"

McDonough scoffs at that claim. "They're just messing with me," he says. "I should have been back fixing water hydrants; instead I'm sitting at home accumulating back pay. I thought about just showing up at the work site, but they'd probably arrest me for trespassing. These guys are so arrogant they don't care about wasting taxpayers' money."

McDonough is using his time off to run against party insider Billy Marovitz in the March primary for Democratic committeeman of the Ninth Congressional District. "Why not--let's have a little fun," he says. "I love messing with them." And he's conducting a little investigation of his own, dropping in every now and then to snap pictures of various City Hall adversaries.

"I got a great picture of [corporation counsel] Mara Georges. Hey, they watched me--now I'm watching them."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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