Tollway self-examination of potential patronage finds no major flaws

The Illinois tollway could tweak its conflict of interest guidelines but is on the right side of the law, a legal expert said during a special meeting called after concerns over potential patronage.

After Daily Herald reports on hiring and tollway contracts involving firms that have political ties to Republicans or connections with executives, the state Senate held a hearing on the issue in July.

Chairman Robert Schillerstrom subsequently formed an ad hoc committee to look into procurement, hiring and conflict of interest policies that held its second session Thursday.

The agency follows the law but "is there something here we could do better?" Schillerstrom asked.

Not much, said witnesses at the session which included two consultants that have contracts with the agency and Edward Gower, a former IDOT attorney.

"There is a great deal of transparency in the selection process," R.M. Chin & Associates President Eileen Chin said.

Issues reported by the Daily Herald included: hiring House Republican Leader Jim Durkin's sister-in-law as engineering manager, although her background is in furniture sales; using a PR firm whose CEO is the wife of a Republican lawmaker on a $6.6 million contract; and selecting an engineering firm that employs the grown children of tollway executives, including Schillerstrom, for a $157 million contract. The firm, Omega & Associates, has also contributed to two board directors' charities.

The tollway board is appointed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Tollway leaders said they are adhering to all state procurement laws and policies and Gower agreed.

"Board members can differ on perceptions of what a conflict is and one board member's decision on what he or she might consider not to be a conflict can in fact result in criticism of the entire board," he said.

Gower suggested it could be "in the tollway's best interest to try to get a little more guidance on conflict of interest issues and put a little more meat into conflict of interest materials distributed to the board."

Asked about ethics laws concerning charitable organizations, Gower said none existed. "It's a matter of policy for the tollway collectively to address."

The committee held its first meeting Aug. 15 and is expected to reconvene next week.

Hearing from administrators about "what goes on and the double-checking and independent reviews by the state I am extremely impressed," Elk Grove Village Mayor and Director Craig Johnson said.

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