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Clout on campus: Nepotism 101 at South Suburban College

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Updated: June 2, 2013 6:07AM



Students at South Suburban College could learn a valuable lesson from members of the college board — it pays, quite literally, to have relatives with clout.

A Better Government Association analysis found that at least seven relatives of board members have been hired by the South Holland community college over the years, collectively drawing pay of about $340,000 annually.

The BGA also found four instances in which board members voted to hire their family members, a clear conflict of interest.

What’s more, the BGA discovered that the college board chairman, Frank Zuccarelli, a Democratic Party stalwart in the Southland, has accepted thousands of dollars in campaign money from some of the employees who are related to board members.

Overall, the BGA found through interviews that Zuccarelli, who’s also the Thornton Township supervisor and Democratic committeeman, has three relatives on the South Suburban College payroll:

His cousin, Robin Rihacek, is the $68,000-a-year director of enrollment services. Zuccarelli voted in 2003 to hire Rihacek. Since 2004, she has donated more than $9,000 to political funds controlled by Zuccarelli, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Jeff Rihacek, her husband, is the director of academic computing and telecommunications and makes about $77,000 annually. Zuccarelli abstained on the 2009 vote to hire him.

A “distant” cousin, Phillip “Tom” Tomich, who’s a manager in the college’s job training department, and makes about $58,000 a year. Zuccarelli voted to hire Tomich in 1995, and since then Tomich has donated more than $8,600 to Zuccarelli’s campaign funds, campaign records show.

Zuccarelli said, in hindsight, he should have abstained from voting in at least one instance, but he added that “we’ve never done anything (wrong) intentionally.”

Many public agencies have anti-nepotism policies — which the BGA supports because government jobs should be filled based on qualifications, not bloodlines or political affiliations. But South Suburban College has no rule prohibiting the hiring of relatives, school spokesman Patrick Rush said.

The BGA also found that college Trustee Katie Jackson Booker, who recently died, has a daughter and granddaughter on the SSC payroll. Marrion Perkins, the daughter, makes $33,000 a year in the post-college employment office. Booker abstained on the vote to hire Perkins in 2002. Perkins donated $200 to a Zuccarelli campaign fund in 2006, state records show.

Booker’s granddaughter, Tiffane Jones, works as a manager in the admissions and recruitment department. Booker voted in 2004 to hire her. Jones makes about $44,000 and donated $400 to a Zuccarelli campaign fund in 2006, records indicate.

A year later, in 2007, SSC Trustee Terry Wells voted to hire nephew Calvin Wells, who works in the college’s maintenance department and is paid about $34,000 a year, according to interviews.

A sister of Trustee Jacqueline Martin was hired in 2011, though Martin was absent for the vote. The sister, Margaret O’Connell, works in the job-training department at the school and is paid about $25,000 a year.

This isn’t the first time that Zuccarelli has been in the news. In 2011, the BGA reported on his six-figure salary as township supervisor and his appointment to the Cook County Appeals Board — both taxpayer-funded posts that may lead to public-sector pensions.

Also, in 2009 FOX 32 News found South Suburban College faculty and students working the streets on Election Day on behalf of Zuccarelli, an apparent conflict of interest.

Zuccarelli is not paid as a college trustee.

The college offers two-year associate degrees, and in the average year has about 17,000 students enrolled from about 20 south suburbs. It employs about 800 people.

Contributing: BGA intern Zachary DeBiasi.

Patrick Rehkamp can be reached at (312) 386-9201 or prehkamp@bettergov.org



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