Tollway says employees pocketed $25,000
A dozen Illinois tollway employees are accused of taking $25,000 in tollway funds, with four of them allegedly pocketing drivers' money while recording them as toll-free fire and police vehicles.
Investigators with the agency's inspector general's office say the four toll collectors pilfered more than $9,000.
Overall, Inspector General James Wagner's office collected $25,000 between April and September from employees who had swindled the tollway for everything from insurance fraud to failing to pay tolls for personal trips to the emergency vehicle con.
While acknowledging most workers are honest, administrators need to "let toll collectors know there's a new sheriff in town," Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board Director Bill Morris said. "And when they're caught, they'll lose their jobs and might go to jail."
Tollway Chair Paula Wolff said ongoing probes by investigators were encouraging people to come forward with information and would allow the "public to understand their tolls are being used for the things they think they're being used for."
The average toll collector earns about $47,000 a year. Twelve cases that resulted in guilty findings with subsequent resignations or dismissals have been investigated since January and more cases are pending, Wagner said. Three have resulted in prosecutors pursuing felony charges.
But as the agency takes aim against internal corruption, one questionable perk that's been criticized by Gov. Pat Quinn could be here to stay.
Hundreds of tollway employees get a free pass on tolls on their way to and from work using so-called nonrevenue transponders in their vehicles.
Although the agency appeared poised to eliminate the practice a year ago, it now appears that the freebie is considered a benefit and tollway executives may be reluctant to take it away from staff members.
Nearly 75 percent of tollway workers -- 1,159 employees out of 1,598 -- don't pay tolls to get back and forth from work. In summer 2010, the agency estimated the loss of revenue from the perk totaled about $228,957.
Employees are not allowed to use the transponders for personal travel and now the agency has a means of tracking abuses, Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said.
Administrators had intended to talk about the issue Thursday but are still collecting data and should report back in October.
"There are significant implications for our union negotiations and we need to be thoughtful of that," Lafleur said. The free transponders are listed as a benefit in the employee handbook, which means eliminating them could have contractual or legal consequences."
Quinn, before being elected governor, had crusaded for reforms at the tollway and sought reductions in the free transponders.
"The governor has charged the tollway board with operating the agency in a transparent, efficient and accountable manner and has asked them to look into the matter," a Quinn spokesman said.
The issue comes as the agency readies to institute toll hikes of 35 cents to 45 cents at most plazas Jan. 1.