Ex-tollway administrators accuse chairman of overreach, 'abuse of power'

A letter from two former tollway executives warns of what they describe as a power grab at the agency by Chairman Will Evans that is undermining Executive Director José Alvarez and raising concerns about conflicts of interest.

The letter obtained by the Daily Herald Monday was sent to tollway board directors from former Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Ross and former Chief Procurement Compliance Officer Dee Brookens in November after they were dismissed in late October. It describes "continuous inappropriate conduct, overreaching authority and abuse of power" by Evans.

On Tuesday, the Illinois Senate Transportation Committee met to ask Evans about his reorganization of tollway leadership that removed certain responsibilities from Alvarez, including the procurement department. The changes were approved by the tollway board.

The shift creates conflicts of interest because Evans "gave himself the authority to direct procurements, then vote on and approve those same procurements as the chairman of the board," Ross and Brookens wrote.

Evans, when asked by senators about the letter, testified that there were no conflicts of interest and that state law gives him supervisory authority over "all powers, duties, obligations and functions" of the tollway authority.

Regarding the two executives, "I am unable to provide any details of personnel matters," Evans said. After his testimony, he declined to comment further on the letter.

Both women were former colleagues of Alvarez and were recruited by him to work at the tollway in summer of 2019.

Brookens and Ross said that Evans does not have authority to fire employees without permission from the executive director.

"The chairman forced the executive director and Ms. Ross to make hires, promotions and salary increases, despite their objections regarding the lack of qualifications and experience of the candidates specific to the positions," the two wrote.

Brookens and Ross also faulted Evans for sending state police and tollway security to collect equipment at their homes after he fired them.

"This was done with malice to treat us like criminals, instill fear and intimidation, and humiliate us. For people of color, these types of actions involving law enforcement officers have historically negative connotations," the women wrote.

Evans told senators that departing tollway employees are given ample opportunities to turn in equipment, and it's not unusual for state police to be involved. "Every effort is made to contact employees and effect terminations as cooperatively as possible," he said.

Evans is an electrical engineer, retired president of People's Gas and North Shore Gas, energy consultant and president of the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association.

He was appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2019 as part of a reform effort at the tollway after patronage scandals.

Alvarez had previously come under criticism for hiring at least nine former workers from his former workplace at the Chicago Housing Authority and placing them in high-paying positions at the tollway.

He defended his actions, saying he was putting in place a highly qualified team of professionals.

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