Senators ask tollway chairman about conflict of interest

Members of a state Senate committee on Wednesday questioned the new tollway board chairman about a vote he should not have taken because of conflict of interest concerns, but they voted to confirm his nomination.

Will Evans, a former executive at HBK Engineering LLC, approved a $29.5 million contract involving his previous firm in April. The contract was awarded to Jacobs Engineering, and HBK is one of the subcontractors, a mention Evans said he "missed."

The full Senate is expected to give a final confirmation vote this fall.

"I have to confess the most I know about you is that unfortunate vote," Republican state Sen. Donald DeWitte of St. Charles said during the Executive Appointments Committee hearing. "It may not have been a pure conflict of interest," but it "raised questions about whether this was a repeat of some bad decisions made in the past by the tollway authority."

Democratic Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines commended Evans on a "distinguished career with vast expertise" but noted "that's why the vote is very unsettling."

"How are you going to be able to make a determination in the future that items are not conflicts of interest?" she asked.

Evans said "that vote on the conflict was inadvertent, and I will be recusing myself in the future."

Tollway officials said the HBK portion comes to less than $150,000 of the entire contract, and the board will hold a revote next week to correct the mistake.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed Evans, a Skokie resident, to the state agency on Feb. 28, saying the move ushered in a new era of transparency at the toll authority.

This followed the General Assembly's ousting the former board after a series of articles by the Daily Herald detailing concerns about nepotism and excessive spending.

"The General Assembly did an unprecedented act," Murphy said, and "our intent was to avoid any appearance of a conflict" of interest.

Evans said one of the first actions the new tollway board took was to tighten ethics standards and create an independent group within the agency to review conflicts of interest.

"During my review of all the information I missed HBK, that's what happened," Evans said.

Evans is former CEO of Peoples Gas, and Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval of Cicero praised his record, saying in "100 years of this great state, you're the first African American on the tollway. It's a credit to you and your work."

Murphy noted she would be "watching" the board's actions before the final Senate vote..

Evans resigned as chief diversity officer for HBK on Feb. 27. He listed his position with HBK in a statement of economic interest filed with the state.

HBK Engineering also has an ongoing $5 million tollway contract to handle underground utility locations and other duties upon request.

The contract in question was for design management services on the Elgin-O'Hare Western Access Corridor.

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  Members of the Senate Executive Appointments Committee listen to testimony before voting on tollway directors Wednesday. Marni Pyke/
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