'Time to fumigate the board': Senate votes to sweep out tollway board

Sweeping changes are coming to the Illinois tollway after state senators Wednesday approved ending the terms of current board directors.

The unusual action comes after incoming Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, called out agency officials for "unethical behavior." Pritzker is expected to sign the bill, making the change final after he takes office Monday. He has until Feb. 28 to name replacements.

The Illinois House passed the bill Tuesday.

"These reforms will build transparency and accountability at the Illinois tollway," Pritzker said.

Senators questioned tollway officials about potential patronage and nepotism during a July hearing sparked by Daily Herald investigative stories.

Democratic state Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin said Wednesday it was time for a reset. "The hiring and spending at the tollway has been disturbing. It was time to fumigate the board and start over," said Castro, who criticized a $6.6 million tollway contract with public relations consultants connected to a GOP lawmaker.

Tollway leaders said they have followed the law at all times and instituted ethics reforms in November to take care of any problems.

"I never was involved or saw anything of that nature," tollway Director and Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson said. "If I did, I would've said something."

The Daily Herald series included reports on contracts with firms linked to tollway executives or Republican politicians; recruiting a cadre of GOP insiders for high-paying positions; spending thousands for staff members to attend speaking engagements by tollway leaders; and potential conflicts of interest with appointees to a powerful committee that recommends consultants.

The board also changed the agency's bylaws to remove language giving directors power to overturn the chairman's veto and to remove references to avoiding "potential" conflicts of interest, while still advising directors to avoid and disclose conflicts of interest.

The directors, all of whom were appointed by departing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, are eligible to serve again, Senate President John Cullerton said.

"I would be honored to continue serving," Johnson said, adding a planned ring road on O'Hare International Airport's western edge is "near and dear" to his heart. "I thought I offered a lot of insight."

It's uncertain whether Executive Director Elizabeth Gorman will remain, although typically top leadership at the tollway changes with a new administration.

The bill was approved 50-2 in the Senate, with seven members not voting. Voting no were Republicans Craig Wilcox of McHenry and Dale Righter of Mattoon.

• Daily Herald Staff Writer Christopher Placek contributed to this report.

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