SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza hired Debjani D. Desai earlier this month as her office’s general counsel.
A veteran of state agencies, Desai started her legal career prosecuting white-collar crimes in Cook County.
“I found a lot of honor and prestige in what public defenders and prosecutors do and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to give people a voice, people who couldn’t represent themselves or speak up for themselves,” Desai said. “I knew I wanted to devote my career to public service.”
After six years as a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, Desai joined the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services as an administrative law judge in its bureau of administrative hearings in 2014.
Desai became the department’s assistant general counsel in 2016.
While assistant general counsel, Desai oversaw the resolution of a class action against the agency.
Filed in Chicago federal court, Donegan v. Bellock, No. 16 C 11178, was brought by a class of young disabled people who received funding for in-home shift nursing services from the department.
The class members aged out of eligibility for the services after turning 21, while people in a different state-funded nursing program were not. They alleged the state’s policy was discriminatory and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
In January 2019, U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. granted preliminary approval of the settlement agreement, which provides a way for class members to continue receiving services past their 21st birthdays.
Desai is the immediate past president of the South Asian Bar Association of Chicago. She’s also a board member of the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago.
As general counsel for the state’s chief fiscal officer, Desai said Mendoza’s office will push for the passage of Senate Bill 2456, which would prevent legislators from collecting an “exit bonus” through a loophole that exploits lawmakers’ monthly pay schedule.
State Rep. Luis Arroyo and Sen. Martin Sandoval both resigned from office within the past four months after being indicted on federal bribery charges. Each ex-lawmaker resigned effective on the first day of a month but paid for having worked the entire month.
SB 2456 would switch legislator paychecks to a bimonthly pay period and prorate their pay for any final incomplete pay period.
“It’s a way to save taxpayers money,” Desai said.
Desai is a 2008 graduate of The John Marshall Law School.
She succeeds John K. Gay Jr., who left the comptroller’s office to become general counsel of the Illinois Racing Board.
The Daily Law Bulletin spoke to Desai about her experiences with the health-care department, her new role with the comptroller’s office and her involvement in the South Asian legal community.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Law Bulletin: As general counsel for HFS, what were some of the interesting cases or matters that you handled?
Desai: As a manager of some of the litigation, we handled a lot of federal class action and litigation. Some of the cases that we had dealt with very vulnerable populations including medically fragile technology dependent children and the elderly population who are living in nursing homes.
It’s a difficult balance to figure out ways to provide resources to these populations and also balance it with budgetary constraints or certain regulations or resources.
There are certain constraints, and being able to navigate those things in the context of litigation was difficult, but it was also very rewarding.
In the almost three years I was there, we negotiated and settled several cases regarding in-home shift nursing for children and certain nursing home cases that I believe, in the end, was the most beneficial for both parties, particularly these very vulnerable populations.
LB: Can you talk about some of the matters affecting the comptroller’s office that you are advising on?
Desai: All of the legislation and different things this office is working on is for the taxpayers and for the public — the no exit bonus for legislators [SB 2456], for example.
While it would not take effect for this session, it would hopefully would be in place for the next session. It would prevent legislators from exploiting the system and prevent them from resigning on the first of the month and then getting paid for the whole month.
One thing we’re pushing for over here is to be able to change when [the lawmakers] get paid, so they don’t get a full month pay when they are not working that month. That is something we are actively trying to change and we hope it gets passed very soon.
LB: Why did you want to get involved in the South Asian Bar Association of Chicago and Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago?
Desai: My parents came here [from India] with $100 and nothing, and they knew no one. They had to build their community. I’m proud of them and how far they’ve come.
I want to not just give back to the community in which I live, but also the community which I came from — that means the Asian and South Asian community and the legal community. That’s why it was so important for me as a young attorney and law student. … Those organizations are very meaningful to me.
It’s a way I can give back to the legal community.