The Illinois tollway reversed itself Thursday by releasing names of members on an influential committee that recommends engineering firms, a disclosure that revealed officials with political connections attending meetings and in one case voting on contracts.
Tollway leaders stress the selection committee that ranks professional firms and recommends finalists to tollway board directors is transparent and independent of politics. Directors are appointed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
"All Illinois tollway contracts valued at more than $100,000 are competitively bid following all applicable state laws," spokesman Dan Rozek said.
But the tollway last week blacked out names of people at those meetings, a move attorney and public access expert Don Craven described as improper under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The Daily Herald appealed to the Illinois attorney general's public access counselor, who on Thursday asked the tollway to provide reasons for redacting the names.
Newly released minutes from 2017 indicate General Manager of Engineering Laura Durkin, the sister-in-law of Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, attended six selection committee meetings. She did not vote on recommendations.
Those meetings included a recommendation on a consulting engineer that has Morreale Communications as a $6 million subcontractor. The PR firm is owned by Kim Morreale, wife of state Rep. Michael McAuliffe of Chicago, the only Republican state lawmaker from Chicago.
Tollway officials said the PR firm has a stellar record and was selected on its own merits.
Durkin was hired in April 2017; her last job had been in 2001 as an account executive selling office furniture.
"Laura Durkin does not participate in committee discussions and does not vote. The continued attacks on her are unwarranted and unjustified," Rozek said.
The records also showed Chief Operating Officer Kevin Artl, former political director for the Illinois House GOP, attended and voted at six selection committee meetings in 2017. Votes are done by secret ballot.
Artl "has national transportation and policy experience, as well as a broad knowledge of the tollway's organizational and operational needs. As we noted, senior tollway staff -- including previous executive directors and chiefs of staff -- have routinely served on selection committees," Rozek said.
The tollway has flip-flopped several times on keeping the committee member names secret. In March 2017, officials provided unredacted copies of minutes from two meetings complete with names of attendees.
This month, the agency blacked out names on 10 sets of minutes in response to an April 25, 2018, Daily Herald FOIA request. On Friday, the agency reversed itself and provided full copies of minutes from two of the 10, saying they were "foundational" selection committee meetings.
On Thursday morning, seven sets of minutes were provided in full.
"We want to be as transparent as we can without endangering the confidentiality of proceedings and the selection process," Rozek said.
The attorney general's public access counselor told the tollway Thursday afternoon the initial redactions warranted further review.