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A judge Wednesday reinstated two state employees fired by the Blagojevich administration, describing the case as "bizarre, even as Kafkaesque."

After 16 months without paychecks, Dawn DeFraties and Michael Casey, held up as examples of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's effort to thwart government corruption, could be back at work as early as Monday with back wages.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge Patrick Kelley ruled that the Illinois Civil Service Commission mishandled the matter. DeFraties and Casey had a hearing last winter to get their jobs back, but the commission in May called for resuming the case to collect more evidence.

State law requires a ruling within 60 days of the end of testimony, a deadline Kelley agreed the commission blew. He noted commissioners did not explain why they wanted more evidence or what they were seeking.

"The facts of this case can be described as bizarre, even as Kafkaesque," Kelley said. "Clearly, these were the actions of a mysterious, calculating bureaucracy whose motives we can only speculate about."

DeFraties and Casey declined comment. DeFraties will get roughly $127,584 in back pay and Casey, $78,400.

The decree is a significant blow to Blagojevich. He fired the former personnel workers in April 2006 for allegedly rigging the state hiring process after an investigation by the state's executive inspector general.

DeFraties and Casey claimed they were being singled out for giving politically connected job applications -- many of which came from the governor's office -- special treatment to divert attention from federal prosecutors' inquiries about Blagojevich's hiring practices.

One of the attorneys for the state, Joseph Gagliardo, said an appeal is likely. The state attorney general will decide whether to appeal after consulting the commission, a spokesman said.

"The governor will spare no tax dollar getting his way," said Carl Draper, who represents DeFraties and Casey.

Gagliardo's law firm, Laner Muchin, has represented the state in the matter. The firm has gotten $2.2 million since July 2005, according to state records, but that work includes at least 12 other cases, Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said.

Another law firm, Schiff Hardin, has been paid $2.9 million during the same period. Blagojevich said the firm was hired to review state employment procedures after the federal inquiry began.

"It's unfortunate that the court's decision today is based on the Civil Service Commission's review process, not on the merits of the inspector general's findings," Ottenhoff said.

An administrative law judge who presided over the hearing, however, ruled on the merits, recommending the commission put DeFraties and Casey back to work after 14-day suspensions.

The commission balked and Draper sued in June, arguing not only that the 60-day clock had expired, but that his clients' due process rights were violated because the case, filed in May 2006, dragged on too long. Kelley rejected the due process argument.

Removing troublemakers from office shouldn't be an endless ordeal, Draper told Kelley.

"There's a reason courts have countenanced this process: Fire first and get your hearing later. But do it in a timely manner," Draper said. "To use the words of Larry the Cable Guy, 'Get 'er done.' If you have bad people, get 'er done."

The government countered that the commission had indeed made a decision in May -- to collect more evidence, which pushed back the deadline.

Matthew Bilinsky, an assistant attorney general representing the commission, said the hearing should have continued, the additional evidence collected, and then a judge could decide whether the process was proper.

"Who gets to say when the (hearing) transcript has to be cut off and no additional information be applied to it?" Bilinsky said.

The administrative law judge found evidence that the pair violated laws in evaluating job applications too weak to support dismissal and said they weren't insubordinate for failing to answer questions about hiring posed by a Schiff Hardin lawyer.

But he said they should be suspended for 14 days for not doing enough to stop the special review process for applications that came from the governor's office, legislators or other politicians.

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