The tally of former Chicago Housing Authority employees in positions paying $85,000 to $195,000 at the Illinois tollway is growing, and that concerns some lawmakers given the top tollway executive also is a CHA alumnus.
Tollway leaders dismissed questions of nepotism when asked about nine ex-CHA staffers who were hired from August through December and are paid more than $1.3 million collectively, state records show. Executive Director Jose Alvarez, the former CHA chief operating officer, joined the tollway in April.
"Taken together, all nine of these employees have decades of experience at a number of different organizations in human resources, talent recruitment, procurement and compliance," tollway spokesman Dan Rozek said.
Some lawmakers on a commission tasked with ethics reform are dubious.
"It's unusual. It's not good business practices for government," Republican state Rep. Grant Wehrli of Naperville said.
The new tollway team members "understand and agree with my leadership style. I trust them to do the right thing for the tollway," Alvarez told the Daily Herald Dec. 5 for a story about five ex-colleagues he recruited.
The Daily Herald subsequently learned the total now is nine.
Six of the employees work in the procurement department, which Alvarez said he is revamping and improving.
The agency is consolidating procurement duties and has created a "new comprehensive contract compliance department to ensure the tollway and everyone we do business with is meeting the highest ethical standards," Rozek said in a statement.
In 2019, the General Assembly ousted the former tollway board after the Daily Herald reported about cronyism in contracts and hiring at the agency. Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed replacements and called for a new era of transparency at the agency.
"Getting all these employees from the Chicago Housing Authority is starting to get really strange," said Republican state Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills, adding that, in his opinion, "the CHA is not regarded as a highly efficient entity."
Democratic state Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines, a tollway reform advocate, said, "I find this information troubling. I am interested in getting a full and complete explanation."
One of the nine employees worked at the CHA for three months before moving to the tollway, but he previously was a colleague of the tollway's new chief administrative officer, Kimberly Ross, at City Colleges of Chicago.
The tollway is bringing in "individuals with a breadth of experience from diverse backgrounds who will ensure the tollway earns the trust of those we serve," Rozek said.
In addition, the agency's new compliance division will allow the agency to keep better tabs on contracts and replaces consultants who were paid $1 million to perform those services, he said.
Democratic state Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin and Republican Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods also are on the ethics commission, called the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform.
"In general, I believe that having full-time employees who are subject to state ethics laws is better than having people on contract," Castro said. "It increases transparency and accountability."
"I understand the need to hire people you trust, but I hope that Mr. Alvarez will cast a wider net when looking for employees in the future," Castro added.
McConchie called the situation "quite concerning, especially after the governor stated in his state of the State address last week that the old patronage system 'needs to die ... finally and completely.'"
"The tollway's effort to consolidate operations is laudable," McConchie said, "but transparency and accountability must be at the forefront given the tollway's checkered past."
Leslie Murray of Prospect Heights wants to kick the tires of SUVs such as the "Ford Explorer, Lexus 350 and the Infinity mid-size SUV" at the Chicago Auto Show, which runs through Feb. 17.
"This may be the year that I will have to bite the bullet and purchase a new car," Murray wrote. "The car I am currently driving is a 1999 Ford Expedition with 150,000 miles on it. That is not a typo -- my car legally can purchase a can of beer with how old it is! The car has been great, but I do not want to end up in a position where I am constantly having to make repairs on it."
Commuter pain, bridge gain
Metra Union Pacific West passengers should be prepared for delays through Feb. 23 as the railroad fixes some of its bridges.
Metra workers will be repairing a bridge over the Des Plaines River between Maywood and River Forest, which could slow trains by up to 10 minutes.