Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker criticized political favoritism at the Illinois tollway and promised a clean slate if elected.
"I have deep concerns about this kind of corruption at the tollway and across government," Pritzker told the Daily Herald editorial board Wednesday in response to a question about tollway contracts and jobs going to people with political ties.
"Why did it take 3½ years into Gov. (Bruce) Rauner's term to finally issue a ban on nepotism at the tollway?" asked Pritzker, referring to the Republican incumbent.
"We've got to make sure we get that kind of corruption out of government. We need to make sure that those kinds of self-dealing and machine politics get rooted out of state government. The tollway has been, I think, a place where we've seen more of it recently than before."
The Daily Herald has reported on the tollway hiring Republican insiders for high-paying, important positions, including political operatives, the sister-in-law of a GOP leader and former elected officials. The agency also has given no-bid contracts to PR firms with Republican connections and hired an engineering consultant that employs the grown children of tollway executives.
Rauner told the editorial board in August he "was pretty upset" regarding the tollway hiring the sister-in-law of GOP House Leader Jim Durkin as engineering manager in 2017.
"I've called the board and said, 'Look, guys, if I have to send in some investigators, I'll do it,'" Rauner said.
He also issued an order Sept. 21 prohibiting agency chiefs from the "practice of nepotism" in appointing, promoting or recommending of relatives to departments under their control.
Tollway board directors are appointed by the governor.
As a result of a state hearing this July, the tollway is reviewing its procurement and hiring practices with the intent of improving operations, officials said.
While the state road fund is depleted because of shrinking gas taxes, the tollway's revenues are robust. Asked if tollway funds should be leveraged to prop up state highways or if tolls should be expanded, Pritzker said, "We have a strong financial situation at the tollway today, so I wouldn't want to do anything that would upset that.
"We have to always keep an eye on the tollway to make sure that it's building the roads, repairing the roads properly, and charging the right tolls to make it financially sound, and I think today it looks like it's doing OK."