How state lawmakers are trying to stop political patronage at tollway
Democratic and Republican legislators want changes in state law to curb the potential for political patronage at the Illinois tollway.
The move comes after articles by the Daily Herald about multimillion-dollar contracts won by firms connected to tollway officials and a Republican lawmaker, and the tollway's hiring of a state politician's relative.
"If there's even a potential conflict of interest -- that should be known before a contract is voted on," Republican Rep. David Harris said.
The Arlington Heights lawmaker has sponsored a bill requiring conflicts of interest be made public before a contract is voted on by the tollway board.
Democratic Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines also is formulating legislation to provide more oversight.
Constituents "want a government that has transparency and accountability and to eliminate all those question of impropriety," she said.
The tollway "follows the state procurement code and all other required procedures when awarding contracts but welcomes any new ideas that could further strengthen and improve our contract selection process," spokesman Dan Rozek said.
Tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said the agency had recently passed revised bylaws that dealt with conflict of interest and ethics.
"Obviously, it's very, very important to us," he said. "We should always be cognizant and aware of these things ... and we do whatever we can through training to minimize that or any perception of it."
Harris' proposal was prompted by a Daily Herald report on the board's approval in November of a $157 million contract with an engineering firm that has contributed to board directors' charities and employs the grown children of two tollway officials.
The legislation will "increase openness and transparency in awarding contracts," Harris said.
Tollway executives denied any conflict of interest in that case.
"The tollway maintains a rigid, independent and competitive process for contract selection as part of its commitment to operating with integrity and transparency, and already requires disclosures of conflicts of interest," Rozek said.
Murphy said she was concerned by a Daily Herald article this month about a $6.6 million subcontract with Morreale Communications that piggybacked onto a larger engineering contract and thus did not require a separate vote. The PR firm's CEO, Kim Morreale, is married to Republican state Rep. Michael McAuliffe of Chicago.
Engineering firms do not bid on projects as construction companies do, where proposals are opened publicly and the lowest cost among the qualifiers is selected. Instead, a committee of tollway executives and an engineering professor review engineering applications and make recommendations.
"Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent," particularly with a no-bid process, Murphy said. "We have procurement rules in place to avoid the exact thing that this appears to be."
Tollway officials said Morreale Communications is well-respected and that numerous engineering firms competed for the larger contract.
The Daily Herald also reported in February on the tollway's hiring of Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin's sister-in-law in 2017 as manager of engineering, although her last job was in 2001 as an office furniture executive.
Laura Durkin was the best-qualified person for the job and her brother was not involved in her hiring, tollway executives said.
The tollway's board of directors is appointed by the governor, in this case Republican Bruce Rauner.