Tollway contracts, transparency subject of heated hearing

The Illinois Tollway Board was questioned during a special senate transportation hearing Tuesday following a series of reports in the Daily Herald.

Senator Laura Murphy initiated the hearing after the paper reported on a more than $6 million subcontract with Morreale Communications. The company’s CEO, Kim Morreale is married to Republican State Rep. Michael McAuliffe.

The tollway board is appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Tollway Chief of Procurement John Donato said the tollway chooses the prime vendor. The vendor chose Morreale Communications as a subcontractor, a firm they believe is fully qualified for the job having largely worked on the massive central Tri-State widening project.

The money spent also raised questions. Why is the tollway spending more than $6 million dollars on communications when it has an in-house staff of 11 and another separate $1.6 million dollar?

“We’re reaching out to hundreds and hundreds of homeowners and we just don’t have the resources internally to do that function,” Donato said. “That’s why in these bigger contracts we know we need a communications component, someone who’s an expert in the industry that can be sensitive to tell people that are facing the possibility of losing their homes due our expansion project.”

That should never trump conflict of interest, said former tollway board member Bill Morris, who is frustrated over contract decisions.

“I am just outraged at the cavalier and challenged behavior of the tollway board,” he said. “These are no bid contracts make no mistake about it. They get in a room, they close the door, they decide who’s going to get the business and then they look at who the subcontractors are.”

Morris said Rauner and the tollway have failed. He called on the tollway board to resign not only for not bidding out contracts, but also the hiring of House Republic leader Jim Durkin’s sister-in-law to an $80,000 a year job, reportedly without experience.

He said it is wasteful spending by an entity with plenty to spend.

“They raised the tolls 87.5 % several years ago. It was three times what it needed to be raised. And now they have more money than God and they’re able to throw around $6 million dollar subcontracts like its Santa Clause giving out a candy cane at Christmas.”

The board released a statement Tuesday saying:

The Illinois Tollway today welcomed the opportunity to set the records straight before the Illinois Senate Transportation Committee. The simple fact is that reports of “no bid” contracts and conflicts of interest were unfounded and clearly debunked today by testimony given by the Illinois Tollway, the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) and the Illinois Chief Procurement Office (CPO). In short, what was demonstrated is that the safeguards and mechanisms enacted to ensure transparency and protection against potential conflicts of interest work. Illinois commuters can continue to trust that the Illinois Tollway will operate in an efficient, effective and transparent manner to deliver projects on time and on budget.