The woman who brought a revolution to COD
Kathy Hamilton won a board seat, started asking questions, got censured, and soon was leading a movement
As the highest vote-getter in any College of DuPage board of trustees election, Kathy Hamilton took her seat on the seven-member panel in 2013 and began asking questions.
Why was the college stockpiling millions in cash reserves? Why had it spent $1 million on a lengthy legal fight with Glen Ellyn over jurisdictional matters?
A self-proclaimed fiscal conservative and a CPA by training, Hamilton wanted to dig into the numbers, but she soon found herself the lone voice willing to question the school's powerful president, Robert Breuder, and the board members who affirmed the direction of the college under his leadership.
A mother of two from Hinsdale, Hamilton hadn't run for elective office before. But a series of events during the next two years would lead to a turnover in the board majority and, as new board chairwoman, her ascent to political power on the governing body that provides oversight of the state's largest community college.
"Kathy Hamilton is just one mom versus the machine, and to this point, the one mom has run the table against the machine," said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of For The Good Of Illinois and OpenTheBooks.com, which began questioning COD spending practices last year.
But Hamilton isn't without her critics, who suggest she's more than a mom-turned-reformer. Some of those critics question her motivations, her connection to the Tea Party, and whether she's being entirely open about her agenda for the school and her political future.
Her name has even been floated in political circles as a possible Republican challenger to U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Naperville Democrat.
Current and former COD trustees who have clashed with Hamilton say they initially had a good working relationship with her when she joined the board, but they soon began to take divergent paths.
Former Trustee Kim Savage said she and Hamilton engaged in numerous phone calls and face-to-face meetings to work on areas of common ground after Hamilton took her seat. By early 2014, Savage said, Hamilton was working with her and other trustees "to see if we might be able to help steer the board in a new direction."
But by that summer, Hamilton started to focus on pursuing "personal goals," Savage said.
"Kathy had become increasingly involved with a number of political groups who saw the opportunity to use the problems facing the college as a forum to advance their own personal brands," Savage wrote in an email. "As she moved from objectively looking at the sizable issues we needed to address to engaging in personal attacks on college employees and other board members, it was clear that there was not much point in continuing to try to work together."
In April, Hamilton spoke at an Illinois Tea Party tax-day rally in St. Charles. And the "Clean Slate" of three candidates she recruited to run for COD board got the endorsement of former congressman and current radio host Joe Walsh, who also hosted a Roselle fundraiser for them before the election.
Hamilton doesn't deny her political leanings, but she maintains her position on the COD board is nonpartisan.
"I am a firm believer in fiscal responsibility, and that is my common ground -- that I believe people need to be responsible and accountable to each other," Hamilton said in a sit-down interview with the Daily Herald. "That's how we make things work. We're responsible to each other for what we do. Not only do I think Joe Walsh understands that, but I think there are Democrats that understand that. We are responsible with our money and how we deliver education in our community."
It's Hamilton's successful recruitment of the COD slate and her rise to board chairwoman that have some mentioning her as a possible candidate for Congress. Hamilton, though, downplays talk of her political future.
"How long do you think it will take me to fix the college?" she said. "My goal now is to do a great job fixing this college."
Her 6-year term expires in 2019.
Andrzejewski, too, said conversations about Hamilton's political future are premature; her priority now is to "clean up" COD.
But, he said, "the person who cleans up COD has an extraordinarily bright future."
It's against that backdrop that the college began grabbing headlines last summer. That's when a Breuder email surfaced, detailing his plans to secure a $20 million state construction grant and leading the governor's office to withdraw the funding, citing Breuder's "tactics" in misrepresenting how the funds would be used.
In February, a former engineer at the college radio station was charged with billing the school more than $200,000 from his private company for parts that were never used and labor that was never performed.
But what ultimately put the college in the limelight was the board's approval in January of a $762,868 buyout of Breuder's contract. The controversial severance package is what eventually led to the launch of a series of federal and state investigations into the college's spending and to Hamilton's recruitment of candidates.
Her "Clean Slate" group captured all three board seats at stake in a 12-candidate race. In April, they were sworn in, and the new board majority wasted no time implementing its agenda, which started by putting Breuder on administrative leave (though two days earlier he went on medical leave), hiring a law firm to investigate the college's operations, and authorizing the Illinois auditor general to conduct a performance audit of the college.
Two years ago, Hamilton entered a six-way race for two available seats on the COD board. She wanted to get involved in the community -- specifically in education -- because her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother were all teachers.
Largely self-funding her campaign, Hamilton was the top vote-getter with more than 51,000 votes.
She ran on a slate with then-board Chairman Dave Carlin, though the two would become political adversaries two years later.
At the time, Hamilton said she thought the administration was "reckless" in spending tax money on a costly legal fight with Glen Ellyn about whether the college had the right to install signs and construct buildings on campus without oversight from the village. And she said she believed the college shouldn't have been holding as much as $220 million in reserve funds, equaling about two years' worth of property taxes.
Still, when she met Breuder, she was willing to give him a chance, she said.
"I thought I would wait and see what he would turn out to be in terms of interacting and how he met the needs of the educational requirements for a community college," Hamilton said.
But in February 2014, trustees were provided with an internal college audit that revealed potential fraud at the radio station. Hamilton suggested the board's audit committee be overhauled and recommended "best practices" be implemented: have three people on the committee, not two; meet five times a year, not once or twice; and have direct access to auditors, not going through the college's financial officer to get questions answered.
Those suggestions, she said, fell on deaf ears.
"Our internal auditor was directly reporting to the president. Why would you say, 'Children, why don't you watch the cookie jar? Foxes, why don't you watch the hen house?'" Hamilton said. "There was a sense that the administration had expertise that should be followed. I think their expertise is sadly remiss when you look at how many subpoenas are out."
Voice of opposition
Months later, Andrzejewski's group made public Breuder's email. Hamilton was the lone trustee to vote against committing funds for the construction of the building, and she wrote a letter to the Daily Herald to explain her vote, saying she'd been discouraged by the board from speaking up and needed a new forum.
But the board passed a resolution to censure Hamilton, citing in part her "misstatements" about the project.
The censure resolution, she said, hardened her resolve.
"It was an act of bullying, and I don't respond very well to bullies," she said.
Savage voted against the censure resolution because she said she thought it was important to protect a minority voice on the board. But she also said the censure resolution brought up "valid concerns."
Like Savage, Trustee Joseph C. Wozniak met with Hamilton occasionally to discuss college business after she got elected in 2013.
"My impression of her was that she could be someone we could all work with," Wozniak said. "She's the one who turned it around to be that we can't."
Wozniak said Hamilton did things behind the backs of other trustees as she pursued her agenda with the help of Andrzejewski and the Edgar County Watchdogs.
COD board members Erin Birt and Dianne McGuire, who have also clashed with Hamilton and are now in the board minority, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Hamilton said she received an "outpouring" of support after the censure. And so she started talking to potential candidates to join her on the board, eventually recruiting Deanne Mazzochi, Frank Napolitano and Charles Bernstein to run.
At the same time as campaigning was underway, the board voted on Breuder's buyout. Hamilton said the agreement, crafted behind closed doors for months before coming to a public vote in January, reflects a "mosaic of all different opinions" of trustees: some who wanted him to leave after the faculty union took a vote of no-confidence, some who wanted him to stay and others who feared the possibility of litigation.
Hamilton maintains she was the only board member who wanted Breuder out, without any severance. She believes the radio station fraud allegation was reason enough for Breuder to be dismissed for cause.
State Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Wheaton Republican, said Hamilton reached out to her in late 2013 expressing concern with issues at the college. When the Breuder email controversy erupted in the summer of 2014, it was Ives who recommended Hamilton write a letter to the Daily Herald explaining her vote.
"I'm not surprised she is the one who is still standing tall at the end of this," Ives said. "You could tell it bothered her so bad that she was going to see it to the end."