The Illinois tollway has paid more than $636,000 over seven months as part of an estimated $6.6 million contract with a politically connected communications firm whose hiring largely flew under the radar.
Morreale Communications is led by CEO Kim Morreale, who is married to Chicago's only Republican state representative, Michael McAuliffe.
The firm's client list includes Chicago and Pace bus, but unlike those public entities, the tollway's board of directors is appointed by the governor, in this case Republican Bruce Rauner.
Tollway officials said the communications firm, which was hired as part of a larger contract with engineers WSP USA Inc., was picked on its merits. Neither contract was competitively bid.
"Morreale Communications is a well-known and respected communications firm in the transportation industry and has proven to be an invaluable resource to the tollway," spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said. "The tollway has operated with 100 percent transparency and integrity in regard to this business relationship."
Government watchdogs, however, raised concerns about patronage and a lack of accountability and openness.
"I'm appalled at the level they've taken politics and nepotism," said Bill Morris of Grayslake, a former tollway director and former Democratic state senator. "Why does a firm that's designing plans for the tollway need a $600,000-plus PR person?"
A spokesman for Rauner declined to comment and referred questions to the tollway.
Morreale said, "While my career started long before I met my husband, I understand that his position subjects me to a higher level of scrutiny than most. As such, I have made it a priority to operate my business with the highest degree of integrity and ethical standards. As a small-business owner of an award-winning firm with a 90-percent female and minority workforce, it's unfortunate that we continue to encourage dialogue that evaluates a woman's success by her husband's."
Morreale Communications was approved along with 15 other subcontractors as part of a $84.5 million consulting engineer contract with WSP in June 2017. The consulting engineer assists the tollway in overseeing the toll road system and with new projects.
From July through February, the Morreale firm billed more than 6,000 hours, about 770 work days. The company's work included writing speeches for tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom and executives; preparing briefings and talking points for senior staff and board members; spearheading the "Give Them Distance" campaign reminding drivers to move over for emergency and stopped vehicles; securing media spots on radio to promote the tollway; monitoring community meetings for towns on tollway corridors; providing copy editing and graphics support; and helping to craft a new vision statement for the diversity department.
Engineering firms like WSP assemble their own teams and the "tollway plays no role in how these teams are assembled," the tollway said in a 482-page response to questions from the Daily Herald.
WSP Communications Director Jayanti Menches said, "WSP employs numerous sub-consultants on this contract and we thoroughly vet qualifications prior to selection. We are also strong supporters of women and minority-owned companies."
As is state procedure with professional firms, WSP's contract wasn't competitively bid; instead proposals were vetted and ranked by a committee of tollway executives and an engineering professor.
"An independent board made the selection and the tollway board approved the contract unanimously," the tollway said in the statement.
The consulting engineering contract has had a bumpy ride. In 2016, a majority of tollway board members spurned the committee's original pick of engineers AECOM Inc. without explanation. AECOM lawyers later complained the board acted with "blatant" disregard for the law.
Other contracts have come under scrutiny. The Daily Herald reported in February on the tollway's hiring of Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin's sister-in-law in 2017 as manager of engineering, although her last job was in 2001 as an office furniture executive.
Also, the tollway in 2017 approved a multimillion-dollar contract with another engineering firm that has contributed to board directors' charities and employs the grown children of tollway officials.
If the tollway needs a public relations consultant it should hire one outright, rather than through the back door, Morris said. "Why is it being done by an (engineering) firm that should decide how thick the concrete should be on a highway?" he asked. "There's no question there's patronage here."
It's standard practice for engineering firms to include a communications component in projects of this size and scope, tollway officials said.
Rauner, who appeared at a "Give Them Distance" press event in December orchestrated by Morreale's firm, has donated thousands to state Republican committees that channeled the money to vulnerable GOP candidates like McAuliffe in the 20th District, where a proxy war between Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan played out in 2016. The 20th District includes Chicago and suburbs such as Rosemont and Des Plaines.
"I am very proud of Kim's accomplishments, and attempts to define her success by my professional career path is nothing more than political posturing and a disheartening attempt to reinforce the glass ceiling we are all working so hard to shatter," McAuliffe said.
The 11-person tollway board includes Rauner and the Illinois Department of Transportation secretary as ex-officio members plus nine appointees of the governor. Tollway officials noted three directors were originally named by Democratic governors before being reappointed by Rauner.
The amounts billed by the Morreale firm average $80,000 a month, although in January and February amounts surpassed $100,000.
Speaking in general terms, Republican state Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights said "the tollway has always been a hotbed of patronage. Both parties have taken advantage of the fact it is a relatively independent body and not subject to great legislative or General Assembly scrutiny."
The Morreale Communications contract was reviewed for conflict of interest by the state Procurement Policy Board and Chief Procurement Office and approved, tollway officials said.
The agency is committed to diversity, including women-owned businesses, and "we have an obligation to judge these businesses based on the quality of their work, not their personal decisions," a statement said.