Connections between Illinois tollway directors and an engineering firm poised to secure a lucrative 10-year contract are raising questions about the potential for conflicts of interest.
Agency directors will vote Wednesday on giving Omega & Associates a $157 million contract to oversee a massive rebuild of the Central Tri-State Tollway (I-294).
Three members of the tollway board, however, have links to the Lisle firm.
Chairman Robert Schillerstrom's daughter is a marketing coordinator for Omega and began working at the company in March 2016.
Director Neli Vasquez Rowland is president of A Safe Haven, a program addressing homelessness and addiction, that receives support from Omega.
Director and Pastor Corey Brooks runs a charity to reduce violence and poverty in Chicago that has counted Omega as a benefactor.
All three denied any conflicts of interest and officials said the tollway has followed proper procedures.
But Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Chairwoman Susan Garrett said the tollway should avoid the impression of a "quid pro quo" environment. In this case, "there are too many overlaps, whether it's charity or employment," she said.
Charitable donations are a gray area in the state's procurement code, said Garrett, a former state senator. "To protect both parties, the procurement process should be clear about gifts at any level. There should not be any opportunity for contractors to curry favor with those that approve their contracts."
As an attorney, Schillerstrom said, he is hyper-aware of "conflicts and perceptions about conflicts."
With Omega, "I removed myself from behind the scenes and in front of the scenes, I had nothing to do with the selection or the selection committee," Schillerstrom said. "I did not talk to anyone on staff about it, I did not talk to any directors. When it does come before the board I will recuse myself."
Brooks founded the Project H.O.O.D. charity that helps troubled Chicago communities. Omega and other benefactors will be recognized at a December event where Schillerstrom is a guest speaker. Brooks confirmed Omega's donation, but declined to give an amount.
After learning about the contract, Project H.O.O.D.'s board of directors decided to return any contributions from Omega, Brooks said.
"Legally, we didn't have to send it back because there is no conflict of interest," Brooks said, but he said he was glad Project H.O.O.D.'s board "had enough wisdom" to wish to avoid any questions of conflict.
Brooks also noted that the contract is the highest ever awarded to a minority-owned company and "I think that's something the state and tollway should be proud of." Omega was founded by engineer Chandra Prasad.
Vasquez Rowland said A Safe Haven's legal team found no conflict existed with Omega because, as a former head of a development/contracting firm, she had long-standing relationships with industry professionals, including Prasad, that predated her tollway appointment in 2016.
Two other firms, Terra Engineering and Cotter Consulting, have tollway contracts for $600,000 and $2.5 million, respectively, and also are benefactors to A Safe Haven.
"The foundation is a not-for-profit," Vasquez Rowland said. "It doesn't personally enrich me and all of the proceeds actually do go to the cause." Contributions "would not sway my vote," she noted.
Professional firms do not bid competitively for tollway projects. Instead, applicants are screened, then reviewed by a committee of executive, engineering, procurement and diversity staff plus an engineering professor that ranks the top three. The committee's recommendations are then sent to the board for a vote.
Arlington Heights Republican state Rep. David Harris said the no-bid contract raises concerns about "pinstripe patronage" that need to be looked at.
Former tollway director and watchdog Bill Morris of Grayslake said the situation doesn't "pass the smell test" and called the Tri-State project into question.
"Where are these folks getting all this money to toss it around as if they were a float in a parade tossing candy to kids?" Morris asked.
Omega has a stellar track record on previous tollway and IDOT projects, Omega CEO Prasad said.
"We believe the selection committee has made Omega their recommendation for the board because of the merits," he said.
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CTA fare hike
Like Metra and Pace, the CTA is planning a fare increase this year after state budget cuts and low sales tax revenues. The agency proposes a 25-cent raise in its base fare, meaning $2.50 for an El ride and $2.25 to board a bus, effective in 2018.