The Illinois tollway contends its no-bid process that uses a selection committee to makes recommendations to the board on expensive engineering contracts is independent and transparent.
But when asked to provide meeting minutes, the agency blacked out the names of committee members in a majority of cases, making it impossible to see who is voting -- a response criticized by attorney and public access expert Don Craven as improper under Illinois open records law.
When the names did surface they included tollway board Director Corey Brooks, who like all directors is appointed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, countering claims the selection process for contracts is independent.
Knowing who sits on the selection committee is important because unlike construction contracts that are competitively bid and go to the lowest bidder, professional firms are screened by tollway staff, then ranked by committee members who send a final recommendation to the board.
The Daily Herald has reported on potential conflicts of interests involving contracts where firms have political ties to Republicans or connections with tollway executives. The agency denies any patronage and said it follows state regulations on contracts.
In one case, the board approved a $157 million contract with Omega and Associates for Tri-State Tollway management services in November. The grown children of tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom and chief engineer Paul Kovacs work at Omega. Both officials said they had separated themselves from the decision-making. Omega also contributed to two board directors' charities.
In an April 25, 2018, Freedom of Information Act request, the Daily Herald asked for selection committee minutes, which included the Sept. 22, 2017, vote on the Omega contract.
Names of committee members were blacked out in those minutes, as well as those for nine other meetings in the FOIA response. Officials said the agency was following laws protecting confidentiality.
But the tollway has been inconsistent on that front, releasing unredacted minutes from a Feb. 23, 2017 meeting after a March 2017 FOIA request. Officials also reversed themselves Friday by providing full copies of two meetings.
Tollway leaders have stressed the selection committee stands apart from politics.
"The independent selection committee, a collection of tollway executives and a former professor of engineering at University of Illinois, (operates) independent of the tollway board," officials said in a previous statement.
So why was a board member part of a Feb. 23, 2017, selection committee meeting?
Brooks, who is the diversity committee chairman, was there as part of a push to step up diversity efforts, tollway spokesman Dan Rozek said.
Also participating in the Feb. 23 meeting was tollway Chief Operating Officer Kevin Artl, former political director of the Illinois House Republican Organization.
Artl's presence is consistent with past tollway practices and is needed because top executives provide the "best understanding of how individual contracts can affect the agency," Rozek said.
Under the previous tollway administration, former Chief of Staff Mike Stone attended selection committee sessions, he noted.
Others at the Feb. 23, 2017, selection committee were Kovacs, two other tollway engineering staff members, an Illinois Department of Transportation representative and a public representative.
That lineup differs from selection committee criteria in state administrative rules.
Illinois Executive Ethics Commission officials say the tollway should follow those protocols, which also govern IDOT.
Those protocols say selection committees should include the deputy secretary of transportation, a chief engineer, chief planner, head of the department seeking to hire, and three outside experts, including two recommended by the Society of Professional Engineers.
The tollway instead follows International Organization for Standardization guidelines in staffing its selection committees, Rozek said. The selection committee is picked by the tollway chief engineer and approved by the executive director.
Rozek said the names of the committee members were redacted to "eliminate any inappropriate communications by firms seeking contracts with these committee members."
The Daily Herald has appealed the tollway's decision to redact regular selection committee minutes to the Illinois attorney general's office.
Craven said hiding the names from the public violates Illinois' Freedom of Information Act. "I am aware of no exemption from the FOIA that allow them to do that," he said.
Added Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Chairwoman Susan Garrett: "The committee's current members and their qualifications should be posted on the tollway's website along with committee meeting minutes. This group is key to influencing major funding decisions on awarding contracts, therefore there should be total transparency of their actions," the former Lake Forest state senator said.