Does tollway official have conflict over Quinn donations?

  • Tollway Director James Sweeney is also president of a union local that's a significant contributor to the man who appointed him, Gov. Pat Quinn.

    Tollway Director James Sweeney is also president of a union local that's a significant contributor to the man who appointed him, Gov. Pat Quinn. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Former tollway Director Bill Morris explains why he opposes a toll increase as board Chair Paula Wolff, center, and Executive Director Kristi Lafleur listen in 2011.

    Former tollway Director Bill Morris explains why he opposes a toll increase as board Chair Paula Wolff, center, and Executive Director Kristi Lafleur listen in 2011. Daily Herald File Photo

Updated 5/12/2014 3:38 PM

An Illinois tollway director appointed by Pat Quinn also heads a union that is a major financial player in the governor's re-election campaign, most recently giving $250,000 to the cause in January.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, whose president is tollway Director James Sweeney, has donated more than $450,000 to Quinn's campaign fund since the 2010 election, state records show. Sweeney also is chairman of the Chicagoland Operators Joint Labor-Management PAC that contributed $150,000 to Taxpayers for Quinn in 2010 and 2011.


The contributions don't breach any ethics laws but they're troublesome, some government experts say, particularly given past cronyism at the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.

"It's worrisome to see so much money coming from one source, especially since the head of (Local 150) is also a member of the tollway board, where so many road construction dollars have been spent," said Susan Garrett, chair of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

"The IUOE has every right to contribute to the governor's campaign, but this relationship certainly creates a perception of disproportionate influence and excessive clout," added Garrett.

Izabela Miltko, Quinn for Illinois deputy press secretary, disagreed.

"Illinois campaign finance laws unquestionably permit contributions from unions because these organizations of working men and women have a First Amendment right to participate in the electoral process and have their voices heard," Miltko said.

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"Working people are also entitled to have their voices heard on important boards and commissions such as the Illinois tollway, on which Jim Sweeney ably serves," she added.

Sweeney agreed. "The two (the tollway and Local 150) are not tied together," he said. "Our support for the governor is because of what we think he's done for the state."

But longtime observers of Illinois government, who've seen a reformed tollway emerge after patronage scandals involving former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, expect a higher standard.

"This does more than raise eyebrows, it adds to public cynicism," said DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.


"There's nothing illegal going on here but it does create a situation where the optics are bad," the Institute of Government and Public Affairs' Kent Redfield said. "If people are already cynical or realistic about state government and they see these insider kind of things going on ... that doesn't help."

Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, thinks a conflict of interest does exist.

It lies between Sweeney's obligations to the state and toll authority and his interest in having construction projects funded that benefit Local 150's members, he said.

Regarding Quinn, when a political contributor is appointed to a position "people look at it and say, 'is this about appointing the best person for the job or rewarding a supporter?'" Redfield said.

But Miltko noted in an email that "it's not a conflict."

"Working men and women, through the unions that represent them, are entitled to make contributions to candidates whose philosophy and policies they support."

"We believe in opening up opportunities to serve on boards and commissions to Illinois citizens from all walks of life, not just the well-heeled," she said.

Sweeney, who received $31,426 in 2013 as a tollway director, noted that Local 150 previously has contributed to Republican candidates. "You never know when it comes to politics. If (Quinn) starts going in the wrong direction with policies not advantageous to the state or economy ... we may have a different approach," he said.

Local 150, which represents operators of motorized equipment like cranes, is among numerous construction-related unions pouring money into the Nov. 2 election. Quinn is facing Republican businessman Bruce Rauner.

The election comes as the tollway ramps up Move Illinois, a 15-year, $12 billion road building program approved in August 2011.

The governor, who is an ex officio tollway director, kept out of the public debate about whether to hike tolls to pay for Move Illinois. However, he dropped the lone dissenter, former Director Bill Morris, from the board in October 2011 and appointed five newcomers, including Sweeney.

Recently, Quinn has become much more visible in relation to tollway projects. In March, he visited Schaumburg to tout the $1.4 billion the agency will spend on Move Illinois in 2014 and related jobs.

Sweeney, also at the event, thanked Quinn for helping the construction industry recover from the high unemployment caused by the recent recession.

Interestingly, the state's 2009 $31 billion capital plan is out of money and there's little appetite in Springfield for a gas tax increase or other options to generate a replacement.

That leaves Move Illinois as one of the few major infrastructure programs in the region with a guaranteed funding stream.

Given the importance of the tollway, Garrett is proposing some reforms she hopes would build public confidence.

Her proposal is that "industry representatives (such as construction unions) should not participate in public boards where there are matters that have a direct and predictable effect on their industry's financial interests or on the financial interests of others such as political office holders."

"It's something that takes care of conflicts of interest and ethical issues," said Garrett, a former state senator.

What do you think?

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Your voice

Reader Bob Foys of Inverness thinks "charging tolls on the interstate highway system is a much better way to pay for its maintenance than from the Highway Trust Fund tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline. Tolls charge only those who use the roads, a much fairer way of paying for them than a general gas tax."

Gridlock alert

Work starts this week on ramp improvements at the Route 20/State Street interchange with I-90 in Rockford.

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