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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008 08:43 pm

First impeachment witness testifies administration broke rules

Vicki Thomas, JCAR director, has a passion for fair play

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For Vicki Thomas, rules rule.
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

Despite the media’s hobby of grasping for any thread to connect President-elect Barack Obama to the scandal surrounding Gov. Rod Blagojevich, they passed up the chance to connect Obama to the first live witness at the House impeachment hearing last week — director of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, Vicki Thomas. During Obama’s term as a state senator, he co-chaired the bipartisan JCAR committee; Thomas directs the committee’s 20-person staff, all of whom live in the Springfield area.

But there are two reasons no one would mention it: First, unlike some of the other witnesses, Thomas was unusually forthcoming in her testimony about Blagojevich’s end-run around the rule-writing committee. Secondly, JCAR is just too difficult to explain to anybody other than hardcore political junkies.

“The whole rule-making scenario is very complicated, very tedious. The [impeachment] committee’s eyes glazed over, as do anyone’s,” says Thomas. “I certainly don’t tell anybody at cocktail parties what I do for a living. I say I work for the legislature and that’s about it.”

Whenever JCAR is mentioned in the press, it’s usually preceded by the terms “little-known” or “obscure.” Formed in 1977, it has nothing to do with the passage of bills; it’s a 12-member panel of legislators, with both houses and both parties represented, that performs the nitty-gritty work of helping state agencies describe how to implement legislation through rules.

For example, Thomas says, if the legislature gave an agency permission to distribute $6 million in grants, the JCAR lawmakers, along with Thomas and her staff, would help the agency draft the language describing who was eligible for the grants, when applications would be accepted and how those applications would be graded.

“The details are what create the level playing field,” Thomas says. “Keeping the law clean and well-defined is what lets everybody know they can get equal service under the law.”

The impeachment committee quizzed Thomas on the Blagojevich administration’s attempts to ignore JCAR and unilaterally expand Family Care, a state program under which uninsured parents or guardians can qualify for discounted medical treatment. The governor wanted to relax income limits, allowing a family of four with a household income of up to $83,000 to qualify. Noting the state’s backlog of Medicaid payments, JCAR ruled against the governor’s proposed expansion, in fall 2007 and again in February. But Blagojevich’s office directed the Department of Healthcare and Family Services to sign up families using the looser eligibility guidelines anyway.

Three men — attorney Richard Caro, 2006 Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ron Gidwitz, and manufacturers’ lobbyist Greg Baise — filed a lawsuit claiming Blagojevich overstepped his authority. HFS director Barry Maram and his chief of staff, Tamara Hoffman, referred to the pending case repeatedly as a reason to dodge questions from the impeachment panel.

Thomas was considerably more forthcoming, at one point telling the committee that an HFS staffer plainly admitted that signing up families for the unauthorized program was wrong, but said that HFS had been told to proceed anyway. Asked who that HFS staffer was, Thomas didn’t hesitate: “Tami Hoffman,” she said.

Thomas can afford to be forthright: she is hired by four legislators (the speaker of the house, president of the senate, and minority leaders of both houses), not by the governor.

“These were General Assembly members I was talking to. They were asking me very direct questions under oath,” Thomas says. “I don’t know that I could deny them that information, unlike HFS, who seemed to think they could deny them all kinds of information. I had sworn to tell the truth, so I don’t know that I could have told them anything else.”

The Family Care controversy wasn’t the only tension between the governor and JCAR. Thomas also testified that her agency’s filings of prohibitions and suspensions — the strongest action JCAR can take — increased dramatically under the Blagojevich administration. In JCAR’s 30-year history, only 69 had been filed, but 33 of those occurred in the past six years.

The one question Thomas wasn’t allowed to answer came at the end of the Dec. 17 hearing, when Blagojevich attorney Sam Adam attempted to get her to agree that Blagojevich’s unauthorized expansion simply showed that he valued sick children over bureaucracy. Committee chair Barbara Flynn Currie cut off the discussion, reminding Adam that he wasn’t playing to a jury. Thomas, though, was prepared to answer.

“I would have said that we’re not talking about bureaucracy here; we’re talking about the Constitution, and the fact that no one individual is above the Constitution or the law,” Thomas says. “If the governor has a project that he wants to create, it’s his responsibility to get the General Assembly to approve it and provide the funding.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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