Original article written by Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo on March 8th, 2022 for the Better Government Association. You may find a link to the article HERE
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has agreed to freeze tens of millions of dollars in state funding for four projects sponsored by indicted former Speaker Michael J. Madigan, his office said Tuesday.
The freeze came after a group of nine Democratic state representatives requested it in the wake of Madigan’s 22-count indictment on corruption charges last week.
In a letter to Pritzker on Monday, the lawmakers cited a January investigation by the Better Government Association that found at least $144 million went to the four projects earmarked by Madigan as part of a 2019 infrastructure improvement measure called Rebuild Illinois.
Each of those Madigan-sponsored projects — among nearly $4 billion in pork-barrel funding slipped unceremoniously into the $45 billion legislation — benefited those to whom the former speaker has personal, professional or political ties, the investigation found.
In their letter to Pritzker, the lawmakers said last week’s indictment accusing Madigan of trading his office to enrich himself and his friends raises new questions about the potential for parallels.
Contacted by the BGA on Tuesday, a Pritzker spokeswoman said in an emailed response the governor has agreed to investigate the Madigan-sponsored earmarks.
“At the request of members of the General Assembly who voted for the capital plan, the administration will freeze the funding for the projects outlined in their letter,” wrote Pritzker’s Press Secretary Jordan Abudayyeh.
The pronouncement from Pritzker’s office came after Pritzker received a two-page letter signed by nine Democratic state representatives.
“Although some of the funding for these projects may have already been allocated,” the letter says. “We request another layer of review to determine whether they were an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”
The group was led by State Rep. Ann M. Williams, D-Chicago, who mounted an unsuccessful bid against Madigan to become speaker last year. Each of the representatives who signed the letter were among the 19 lawmakers whose votes helped deny Madigan another term as speaker amid the corruption probe.
“Everything that is tied to Madigan is called into question,” Williams said Tuesday in an interview with the BGA. “We owe it to the taxpayers to carefully scrutinize these projects.
“If there is a way to recoup any misused funds and put them to use for infrastructure projects for schools, roads and bridges, mental health clinics, food pantries, or other such critical needs, we should find it,” she said.
Madigan did not respond to a request for comment.
Among the four projects listed by the lawmakers was a $98 million noise abatement project at the Belt Railway yards, where screeching train brakes have interrupted the sleep of patrons at nearby hotels in Bedford Park.
The hotel owners, Jon and Mark Weglarz, have been clients of Madigan’s tax appeal law practice Madigan & Getzendanner.
“According to the Better Government Association, the brothers said they never requested the funding,” the letter to Pritzker said. The BGA investigation was published by the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Was this huge expenditure of taxpayer funds intended to benefit the community or was it advanced to benefit Madigan’s private law clients?” Williams said in a press release. “It appears that in this case, the interests of Illinois residents took a back seat to the culture of cronyism which was the hallmark of the Madigan era.”
Although the $98 million brake job would benefit the Weglarz-owned hotels and their patrons, the grant request came from the Village of Bedford Park. The work is being managed by the Illinois Department of Transportation.
“We were not involved in the grant application nor even aware of it,” the Weglarz brothers said in an email to the BGA on Tuesday. “This decision and process is up to State officials, IDOT, and the Village of Bedford Park.”
A spokesman for the Belt, General Counsel Chris Steinway, said the Railway “did not request any funds from the state of Illinois, nor were we the intended recipient.”
“Our operations will not be impacted if these funds are frozen,” said Steinway.
The lawmakers also asked Pritzker to freeze payments pending a review of three other projects listed in the BGA report.
Those projects included a $31 million earmark for the Academy for Global Citizenship, $9 million for the John Hancock College Preparatory High School and another $6 million to build a control tower at Lewis University Airport in Romeoville.
All were sponsored by Madigan and were supported by Madigan political allies or lobbyists with close ties to Madigan.
They were all funded through a process largely shrouded in secrecy, where Madigan and other powerbrokers in state government were allowed to move many of their favored projects — traditionally called pork — to the top of the list without the normal bureaucratic scrutiny and screening usually given to massive public works projects, the BGA found.
Contacted Tuesday, officials of the district that owns the airport said its control tower project would pass muster if the Governor ordered a new review.
“We are confident that the Governor will find few other projects more important to the state and the region than the Traffic Control Tower Project which will protect the safety of over 100,000 takeoffs and landings every year, including the many aviation students at Lewis University,” said David Silverman, chairman of the port district that owns the airport.
He said he worries a freeze on funds would harm work-in-progress.
“The Tower has been under construction for many months, is nearing completion and will soon be staffed by Air Traffic Controllers under the Federal Contract Tower Program,” Silverman said. “Holding funding at this point will not only jeopardize public safety but may expose the Port District to financial consequences.”
Representatives of the two other projects listed could not be reached Tuesday.
Williams said she would favor lifting the freeze on funds for the four Madigan-sponsored projects if a Pritzker review finds them worthy.
Among the other lawmakers listed as signatories are:
Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Glen Ellyn; Rep. Deb Conroy, D-Elmhurst; Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, D-Chicago; Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago; Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview; Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook; Rep. Kathy Willis, D-Addison; and Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Naperville.
“The indictment of the former Speaker has cast a shadow over the work of the General Assembly,” said Rep. Costa Howard. “And we have a duty to the people we serve to make sure that every Rebuild Illinois project will serve the interests of taxpayers – not insiders.”
Rep. LaPointe reiterated the point.
“In the interest of rebuilding trust and a fair resource allocation, freezing and scrutinizing projects led by our now-indicted former speaker is critical.”