Editorial: Hearing is only 'a start' toward confidence in tollway hiring
Tollway officials told a state Senate committee that they would "set the record straight" about questions of transparency, favoritism and conflicts of interest, but at best their appearance Tuesday was just, to quote Democratic Sen. Laura Murphy, of Des Plaines, "a start."
Executive Director Liz Gorman told the committee that the tollway's systems for avoiding conflicts worked, presumably because of a system that distances the tollway from some hiring decisions and by helping the tollway "self-identify" potential conflicts. That's OK as far as it goes, but the Senate could have gotten those answers from reading the newspapers. In several stories since last fall, Daily Herald transportation writer Marni Pyke described several questionable tollway decisions and included tollway officials' responses that differed little from their statements Tuesday.
On one issue, Pyke described a $157 million tollway contract for Tri-State Tollway management services with a company that has contributed to two board members' charities and employs the daughter of tollway board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom and the son of the tollway's chief engineer. Tollway officials say they identified the potential conflict and brought in independent engineers to adhere to the law.
Pyke also reported on a $6.6 million subcontract with Morreale Communications, whose CEO is married to Republican state Rep. Michael McAuliffe of Chicago. Officials said the tollway was not responsible because subcontractors are hired independently by the primary contractor for a project.
Other Pyke reports described the hiring of Republican House Minority Leader Jim Durkin's sister-in-law as the tollway's engineering manager even though she had no engineering experience and her most recent work experience was 16 years earlier as an account executive for an office-furniture dealer. Tollway officials said the job does not require an engineering background and Durkin's relative "had the best skill set" of 10 candidates they interviewed.
Just last week, Pyke reported the tollway has hired three separate public relations companies for various projects despite having its own 11-member public relations team. Tollway officials told the Senate committee the "life-changing impact" and technical nature of some projects require communications services beyond what their in-house force can provide.
None of these responses does more than provide potential cover for the actions under scrutiny. In every case, improper influence could still have been a factor in the board's decisions. What the public deserves is a clear and open accounting to show that it wasn't.
If anything, Tuesday's hearing demonstrated the need for legislation like that which has been proposed in the Senate by Murphy and in the House by Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican. These approaches aim to force government officials to give the public full confidence in their actions.
Republican state Sen. Pamela Althoff, of McHenry, had a valid point Tuesday when she emphasized that it is not proof of "a hidden agenda" just because a government decision may raise questions. But a government decision that raises questions does deserve clear, unequivocal answers, and Tuesday's hearing did precious little to satisfy that expectation.