At a time of austerity for most state agencies, the Illinois tollway has spent thousands of dollars for employees to accompany executives at speaking engagements and banquets in 2017 and 2018.
"We feel a responsibility to attend events that recognize tollway programs, board members or executive staff," spokesman Dan Rozek said.
From March 2017 through March 2018, the tollway paid $8,750 for 60 tickets to four City Club of Chicago and Hispanic American Construction Industry Association events, including two where tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom was a keynote speaker or honoree.
That's a sharp increase from previous years. From 2010 through 2016, tollway employees went to six dinners and luncheons at a total cost of $3,790.
In comparison, Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn appeared at the City Club in November 2017 and is scheduled to speak Nov. 29. IDOT does not pay for those events; instead it typically sends a few senior staff members using complimentary tickets, spokesman Guy Tridgell said.
Regarding the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association event, the general rule is IDOT "does not pay for staff to attend," Tridgell said.
Rozek said staff members participate to provide backup.
"Staff members typically attend these events to provide additional information or answer questions that might require technical background or knowledge about specific projects," Rozek said. He said attending events hosted by the association and related groups furthers tollway diversity goals.
"Our increased involvement with HACIA and other industry groups demonstrates our commitment to increasing stakeholder engagement and outreach," Rozek said.
Unlike IDOT, which is funded by taxpayers, the tollway's revenue comes mostly from tolls paid by drivers in northern Illinois.
Tollway customers weren't on the hook, however, for a City Club speech by tollway Executive Director Elizabeth Gorman on Sept. 25 attended by 20 employees and costing $1,500.
"The tollway wasn't billed for that event and didn't pay for Ms. Gorman or other staff to attend. Ms. Gorman personally paid for herself and the tollway staff who attended the City Club event," Rozek said Nov. 2.
Gorman's payment came as the Daily Herald filed Freedom of Information Act requests to the tollway dated Sept. 21 and Oct. 15 seeking records of payments for the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association event and City Club functions. The tollway's FOIA officer said there were no records available related to the Sept. 25 event where Gorman spoke.
City Club officials, however, stated the club sent two invoices to the tollway requesting payment for two tables at the luncheon event held at Maggiano's Banquets in Chicago. The Daily Herald has asked the Illinois attorney general's public access counselor to review the tollway's response.
It's not clear whether Gorman's payment for the most recent event means tollway leaders will pick up the tab for such events in the future.
In response to a request from the tollway to comment, Hispanic American Construction Industry Association Executive Director Jorge Perez said the agency's presence means "members of our organization and business community are able to actively engage with tollway staff. This is good business for everyone."