In less than two years, the Illinois tollway has hired six Republican insiders for high-level jobs that collectively pay nearly $916,000 a year, including a former elected official, political operatives and the relative of a state GOP leader.
That troubles some government watchdogs who say they are concerned about favoritism in an agency with a history of patronage. Tollway officials said the agency is staffed with qualified professionals.
"More and more the Illinois tollway is becoming the 'Who's Who' of Republican political hires," said Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Chairwoman Susan Garrett, a former Democratic state senator.
Tollway spokesman Dan Rozek said the agency's "executive leadership team is almost entirely comprised of staff from previous administrations." He said nine of 13 top executives were employed before the administration of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who appoints tollway board members.
Among recent hires is Executive Director Elizabeth Gorman, a former Republican Cook County commissioner. Gorman won unanimous board approval within days of the surprise exit of Executive Director Greg Bedalov in February. Her annual salary is $215,000. Bedalov was paid $186,000, and his predecessor Kristi Lafleur made $189,900. The Illinois Department of Transportation secretary is paid $150,000.
"She's got the ability to work with people in the private and public sectors, she understands transportation, and frankly she's worth every cent we pay her," tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom, a Republican and former DuPage County chairman said of Gorman, a former director of state and local government at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Gorman, of Orland Park, started the job March 16. On April 5, she put another South suburban Republican, Susan Gowen, on her executive staff.
Gowen, former Rich Township Republican Organization chairwoman, was named acting chief of administration in May after her predecessor left suddenly and is paid $170,560 a year.
"Her background and knowledge of human resources has been and will continue to be a tremendous asset to our team," Gorman said of Gowen, who previously was an office manager for former Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka's office.
Other high-level hires with GOP ties:
• Chief Operating Officer Kevin Artl started his tollway job Dec. 16, 2016, and is paid $169,900 a year. Artl was former Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk's campaign manager and political director and chief of policy for the Illinois House Republican Organization, whose leader now is Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs.
Artl "has extensive administrative and public policy experience," Rozek said, noting he also was the former Amtrak government affairs director.
• Laura Durkin, the sister-in-law of Jim Durkin, was hired as general manager of engineering April 17, 2017, and is paid $84,016 a year. Her last job as an office furniture sales executive was in 2001.
She has "extensive experience in contract management, including activities related to all aspects of project phasing from planning, architectural design and construction," tollway officials said in February.
• Phillip Rodriguez started at the tollway as deputy chief of staff on July 24, 2017, and was paid $138,000 a year. He had worked as Rauner's deputy chief of staff for public engagement, as former Republican Comptroller Leslie Munger's deputy chief of staff and campaign manager, and as public affairs director for Topinka.
Rozek said Rodriguez, who has "extensive management and government experience," had resigned as of last week.
• Communications chief Richard Bossert -- a former Illinois House Republican deputy chief of staff and director of communications, and Illinois Department of Central Management Services communications director -- was hired by Gorman May 15 and makes $138,500 a year. He replaced the former chief of communications who left suddenly in the spring.
All six positions are Rutan-exempt, meaning it's allowable to hire someone with political affiliations. The term stems from a lawsuit filed against former Republican Gov. James Thompson over political hiring.
The tollway has a history of hiring and awarding contracts to political insiders under Democratic and Republican governors. Former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, imprisoned on corruption charges, was charged with strong-arming a construction company for donations and taking contributions from a contractor.
State Rep. Jeanne Ives, a conservative Republican from Wheaton, has criticized the hiring of Gorman and Durkin.
Of the other staffers, Ives said it's reasonable for leadership to want "people who are aligned with you politically and you see eye-to-eye with. But it has to be disappointing to folks who've worked at the tollway a long time and have more institutional knowledge not to be given the opportunity."
State Sen. Laura Murphy, a Des Plaines Democrat, prompted a July hearing on tollway procurement irregularities.
"I've been pushing for transparency and accountability at the tollway for months. This only further proves that we need it, and fast."
Rozek said the new staff members "have brought a wealth of knowledge to the tollway which has been delivering the $14 billion Move Illinois program on time and on budget with new innovations, customer service enhancements and cost savings."