In Transit: Senator under scrutiny by feds exerted muscle on tollway's contract with campaign donor

The state senator whose office was raided by FBI agents Sept. 24 pressured Illinois tollway officials in 2016 to award a contract to a campaign donor.

Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval appeared at a Sept. 22, 2016, board meeting to protest tollway directors voting against a contract with Industrial Fence Inc. for work on the Jane Addams Tollway, saying "this stinks."

"You should award the fence contract to IFI (Industrial Fence). It has the necessary qualifications and experience to get the job done," said Sandoval, chairman of the Illinois Senate Transportation Committee.

"You made a mistake and that's fair. Fix it. Otherwise, maybe me and Rep. (Luis) Arroyo (also in attendance) will find a way to fix it ... later on." Arroyo, a Chicago Democrat, chairs the Illinois House Appropriations - Capital Committee.

State records show Sandoval's election campaigns received $12,750 from Industrial Fence from 2001 through 2018.

Sandoval, whose 11th District includes parts of Chicago's West Side some near-west suburbs, did not return requests for comment. FBI documents from the raid indicate investigators were interested in items related to a few specific highway and construction companies, lobbyists and communications with Illinois Department of Transportation officials. He has not been charged.

On Wednesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Sandoval should step down as chairman while the investigation is ongoing.

"If he doesn't step aside, he should be removed," Pritzker said.

Senate President John Cullerton has taken no action on the issue.

"This is clearly an ongoing investigation and the Senate President wants to make informed decisions," spokesman John Patterson said.

The tollway fencing contract first emerged as a project sized for small businesses in 2015 but the winning low bidder's cost projections were above engineering estimates and it was not recommended.

The tollway rebid the job with a larger scope in 2016. The first bidder tried again but did not meet mandatory state financing requirements. Industrial Fence was the lowest qualified bidder, tollway officials said.

In July 2016, the first bidder complained he wasn't given sufficient time to meet state standards. Directors advised staff to "unbundle" or split up the contract, then voted against the $6.7 million contract with Industrial Fence.

Two months later, "you were all bamboozled by a sob story," Sandoval scolded directors, noting that Industrial Fence was the lowest responsible bidder and would lose thousands in application costs. "What type of message are you sending out to legitimate, veteran/(minority-owned) firms?" he asked.

"It's a moral obligation as a senator representing the people as well - to a certain extent - (the) Hispanic minority" to speak up, Sandoval said in 2016.

Susan Garrett, a former Democratic state senator and chairwoman of the Center for Illinois Politics, a civic group, said it is not the role of lawmakers to petition decision-makers on the outcome of any contract.

"It gives the perception of bias," she said.

Tollway officials said Friday that "in every instance, the tollway recommended to the board of directors the lowest qualified bidder for this fencing contract. This was a competitive procurement that, in the end, resulted in three qualified bidders, and the lowest bidder was awarded the contract."

The tollway re-advertised the project, and in January 2017, the board awarded Industrial Fence a $5.7 million contract for fences and signs on I-90. In July 2017, the board awarded the original bidder a $1.9 million contract for I-90 fence and gate work. In both cases, the contracts went to the lowest of three qualifying bidders, officials said.

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Gridlock alert

If you're driving late on the Edens Spur near Northbrook this week, watch out for overnight temporary lane closures Monday and Tuesday. The tollway is replacing bridge beams between Routes 41 and 43. The agency is replacing pavement on the Edens Spur and rebuilding eight bridges.

Your voice

Reacting to a recent column on deer collisions, Larry Olson of Arlington Heights has a story to tell.

"I hit a deer in 2006 causing $8,000 damage to my minivan" just north of Lake Geneva on Highway 12. "Had I been driving my Lexus with the low hood, I may not be here today. And, this was at 11 p.m. in February! Ever since, I've been apprehensive about driving where there are woods or anywhere else for that matter," said Olson. He concluded, "yes, I hate deer."

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FBI agents raid Springfield office of Sen. Sandoval

Investigations touch Illinois powerbroker's confidants

Pritzker calls on Sandoval to step down from Transportation chairmanship

Unidentified FBI agents carried material out of Chicago Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval's office at the Illinois Capitol Sept. 24, including a bag marked "evidence" and what appeared to be a laptop computer. Capitol News Illinois photo by Peter Hancock
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