Tollway awards $157M contract despite conflict of interest concerns

Illinois tollway directors on Wednesday approved a controversial $157 million, 10-year contract with engineers Omega & Associates that has sparked concerns about potential conflict of interest.

Three members of the board and a top executive have links to the Lisle firm that will supervise Central Tri-State Tollway reconstruction, but officials said the agency has followed all proper procedures.

Chairman Robert Schillerstrom, whose daughter is a marketing coordinator for Omega, left the boardroom during the vote.

Chief Engineer Paul Kovacs' son is a civil engineer at the firm, and Directors Neli Vasquez Rowland and Corey Brooks run separate charities that have received donations from Omega.

All four said there is no conflict of interest.

Ethics watchdogs have said the connections between the tollway and Omega don't "pass the smell test," and Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Chairwoman Susan Garrett commented "there are too many overlaps, whether it's charity or employment."

Tollway leaders contend Omega, which is a minority-owned firm, was the best qualified to oversee the massive job of widening and rebuilding the Central Tri-State between Rosemont and Oak Lawn.

Schillerstrom said he was not involved in the selection of Omega and exited during the vote because "it seemed like the prudent thing to do."

"I've completely recused myself from this, both behind-the-scenes and out-front and felt that that was the final act of not being involved in any way," Schillerstrom said.

Kovacs said he withdraws from any hiring, invoice approvals or contract amendments involving Omega.

"I know I don't have a conflict but I try to avoid that appearance," he said, adding his son is not in a high-level position.

Rowland is president of A Safe Haven, a charity that helps people who are homeless or with addictions.

She was previously a general contractor and has a 20-year relationship with numerous contractors like Omega that predate her 2016 tollway appointment.

"The legal opinion is that there are no concerns based on the fact these relationships pre-existed the tollway," she said.

"I would be ashamed to disadvantage the not-for-profit if they were to interfere with the normal course of business - wanting to give back and make a difference and choosing Safe Haven."

Brooks, a pastor, founded the Project H.O.O.D. nonprofit that works to reduce violence and poverty in Chicago. He said there is no conflict but the charity has returned any Omega contributions.

Unlike construction companies, professional firms don't go through a process where bids are opened publicly and typically the qualified bidder offering the lowest price gets the contract.

Instead, under state law, applicants are screened, then reviewed by a committee of executive, engineering, procurement and diversity staff plus an engineering professor that ranks the top three. The committee's recommendations are then voted on.

Tollway Chief Operating Officer Kevin Artl said the process was competitive in that six firms vied for the contract.

Directors voted 6-0 to hire Omega. Rowland abstained, saying she wanted more information about Omega's role as an "owner's representative" in the contract.

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