Fireworks erupt at Senate hearing on tollway contracts

Amid a call for resignations, Illinois tollway executives fielded questions from state senators about potential nepotism and politically connected PR subcontracts Wednesday at a special hearing.

"You need to fight against conflicts of interest," former tollway director and former Democratic Sen. Bill Morris of Grayslake testified. "You need to not have these conflicts of interest."

And to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who appoints the tollway board, Morris said: "This tollway board needs to be asked to resign."

But tollway officials said they'd "set the record straight.

"What was demonstrated is that the safeguards and mechanisms enacted to ensure transparency and protection against potential conflicts of interest work," Executive Director Liz Gorman said.

The Daily Herald has reported on tollway contracts involving firms with political ties to Republicans or connections with tollway executives.

The hearing is "a start," said Democratic Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines, who prompted the session in Chicago and hopes to shepherd through reforms such as publicly disclosing subcontracts.

"It was a good surface review ... I'd like to see more transparency."

One case that drew questions from legislators involved a $6.6 million subcontract with Morreale Communications that piggybacked onto a larger contract with engineering consultants WSP Inc. The firm's CEO, Kim Morreale, is married to Republican state Rep. Michael McAuliffe of Chicago.

Tollway officials said the agency follows state procurement laws, and subcontractors such as Morreale's firm are hired by the prime contractors, not by the tollway.

Morreale Communications is essential in reaching out to residents affected by construction, such as the Tri-State Tollway widening between Rosemont and Oak Lawn, executives said.

The project will have a "life-changing impact to homeowners," Gorman said, adding the tollway and the federal government demand "a high-level of communication."

Democratic Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin was dubious. She noted Morreale Communications' duties included writing speeches for tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom, preparing talking points for board members and securing radio spots.

"That sounds like a heck of a lot more than just the I-294 project," Castro said. "Why are they doing stuff for the tollway board?"

Gorman said the tollway is required to have a general engineering consultant, and its marketing consultants are "obviously involved in various communications aspects above and beyond what our 11-member (communications) staff can provide."

Another situation that raised questions was a $157 million contract with Omega and Associates for Tri-State Tollway management services in November.

Omega employs a daughter of Schillerstrom and a son of Chief Engineer Paul Kovacs, and it has contributed to two board members' charities.

Asked about how the tollway handled the situation, Gorman said of Kovacs: "The conflict was self-identified as a potential conflict" and other engineers stepped in to handle technical issues.

Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval of Cicero, chairman of the transportation committee, warmly welcomed Gorman, a former Republican Cook County Board member, and praised the agency's work.

While having outside PR subcontractors do construction outreach was "fair and reasonable," using them for tollway administration needs was "questionable," Sandoval said. He suggested the agency directly hire PR firms for those purposes in the future.

Morris also criticized the hiring of the sister-in-law of Republican House Leader Jim Durkin as the tollway's engineering manager despite her unrelated background in office furniture sales.

"This is Illinois ... we all know how the game is played, and it should stop," Morris said.

Republican Sen. Pamela Althoff said the public sometimes perceives a conflict of interest when there is not one, despite best efforts by elected officials.

She referenced how while she was mayor of McHenry, her husband's electrical firm had several village contracts. Although all contracts were disclosed and proper procedures were followed, Althoff said, she still fielded questions about potential conflicts.

"There will always be someone who sees a hidden agenda," she said.

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