Tollway promises new vote after chairman approves subcontract with former employer

On Feb. 27, Will Evans resigned as chief diversity officer with HBK Engineering LLC. Seven weeks later, as the new chairman of the Illinois tollway board, he voted to approve a contract involving his former firm.

Responding to questions from the Daily Herald about Evans' vote, tollway officials said it was a mistake and a new vote is scheduled.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, appointed Evans, a Skokie resident, to the state agency on Feb. 28, saying the move ushered in a new era of transparency at the toll authority, which came under fire for politically motived hiring and contracts concerns during Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's tenure.

Susan Garrett, Center for Illinois Politics chairwoman and a former Democratic state senator, called Evans' vote troubling given the tollway's history of patronage under a slew of governors.

"This continuation of business-as-usual in Illinois is especially disappointing and surprising since Gov. Pritzker made a commitment to clean up practices such as this," Garrett said.

Tollway officials said Thursday "the chairman inadvertently voted on a contract where HBK is a subcontractor. To avoid any appearance of conflict, the contract in question will come before the board again in June, and Chairman Evans will recuse himself.

"Going forward, the chairman will recuse himself from all votes related to HBK."

The contract Evans and other board members approved involving HBK was a $29.5 million deal with Jacobs Engineering Group for design management services on the Elgin-O'Hare Western Access Corridor. HBK is a subcontractor for Jacobs.

HBK's subcontract is anticipated to be less than $150,000, which comes out to be .5 percent of the total contract, tollway officials said.

HBK Engineering also has an ongoing $5 million tollway contract to handle underground utility locations and other duties upon request.

Evans said he was a contractor, not an employee of HBK; company records show he started in 2014, after leaving Peoples Gas, where he was CEO.

"I resigned before I was appointed (to the tollway)," Evans said of HBK. "So that there were no questions that would come up any more."

But Garrett said "it certainly appears that, based on the 24-hour turnaround between Will Evans' resignation from HBK Engineering and his immediate appointment as chair of the tollway, that he very likely was aware of the multimillion-dollar contract before joining the tollway.

"The quick flip from contractor to approver of contracts is troubling in and of itself. In any case, he should have recused himself from votes awarding contracts to his previous employer."

At that same meeting, new tollway board member Stephen Davis recused himself from a vote on a different contract.

Pritzker's selection of Evans and eight other directors filled an unprecedented void at the tollway. The General Assembly ousted the former board and executive director after a series of articles by the Daily Herald detailing concerns about nepotism and excessive spending.

The new board at its first meeting March 21 tightened tollway bylaws regarding conflicts of interest.

Revisions were "the very first thing out of the gate," Evans said, "and we will continue to look at ways to raise the bar and improve our oversight and transparency."

Evans also has worked as an electrical engineer, an energy consultant, and president North Shore Gas.

A Feb. 28 news release from the governor's office announcing the new board did not include Evans' position at HBK.

"Biographies in news releases are condensed reflections of appointees' wide-ranging careers and are not meant to encompass every single item on their resume," Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.

Evans has listed his position with HBK in a statement of economic interest filed with the state.

Evans was CEO at Peoples Gas between 2008 and 2014. The utility came under fire after a 2015 audit by the Illinois Commerce Commission that estimated a Chicago gas main replacement program during Evans' tenure was over budget, rising from a projected $2.6 billion cost in 2009 to more than $8 billion.

ICC consultants found "a significant number of gaps in management, control and oversight," and wrote since 2011 "costs have been rising, work appears to have fallen behind ... and (gas) leak rates have not fallen substantially."

Evans said he retired from Peoples Gas in fall 2014 and wasn't familiar with the audit. "I worked for Peoples Gas for 40 years ... there have been multiple audits and reviews of the company and the company's products," he explained.

The gas main project was "very complex" and "there were a lot of lessons learned," he said.

"Some of those pipes went into the ground when Lincoln was president. There were major changes in resurfacing requirements by the city of Chicago ... that was one big cost addition to the project."

In November 2015, former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said "this project is a disaster that raises serious questions about the safety, reliability and affordability of Peoples Gas."

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