$80,000 tollway hire’s last job was selling office furniture in 2001

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A politically connected Illinois tollway employee hired last year for an important $80,016 engineering department job last worked in 2001 as an account executive selling office furniture.

Laura Durkin is the agency’s general manager of engineering and sister-in-law to Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs. Tollway officials recently released Laura Durkin’s resume to the Daily Herald after withholding it for weeks.

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She was hired in spring 2017 for the job overseeing multiple engineering, architectural and construction contracts. The position requires a minimum of five years’ management experience administering construction contracts, according to the tollway’s job description.

Laura Durkin has a degree in interior design. Her most recent position was from 1996 to 2001 working as an account executive for Workspace, an office furniture dealership in Oakbrook Terrace. She previously handled sales accounts for two other office furniture companies.

“She was clearly qualified for her earlier jobs … but very little of that experience seems to transfer to the new position at the tollway as ‘general manager of engineering,'” said Bill Morris of Grayslake, a former state senator and former tollway director. “It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Tollway authorities defended Durkin’s hiring, saying she is qualified and that Jim Durkin was not involved. Durkin and his staff did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Laura Durkin.

Laura Durkin has “extensive experience in contract management, including activities related to all aspects of project phasing from planning, architectural design and construction through punch list activities. This position is not required to be filled by a professional engineer,” spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said.

Durkin and nine other candidates were interviewed for the job. “She had the best skill set of the candidates considered for the job including management experience, organizational skills and detail focus,” McGinnis said.

That’s not how former Democratic Sen. Susan Garrett of Lake Forest sees it.

Laura Durkin’s “experience with managing customer service projects and improving sales goals on office spaces is vastly different from the job requirements set by the tollway to oversee technical engineering projects and bids worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The technical requirements for the position necessitate specific skills and experience, which Durkin’s resume does not contain,” said Garrett, chairwoman of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

“Also, Durkin has not been employed in over 17 years, giving more concern to her skill set being up to date for this important position.”

Tollway Chief Engineer Paul Kovacs said he recommended Durkin for the position “because I felt she was the best fit for the position and the compensation we were able to offer. Ms. Durkin has met all my expectations over the past 10 months and continues to perform well as a part of our engineering team.”

Tollway officials previously denied a Freedom of Information Act request from the Daily Herald seeking Durkin’s resume, saying the information was personal and of “minimal interest to the public.” The Daily Herald appealed the denial to the Illinois attorney’s general’s office, which intervened in the dispute.

The previous general manager of engineering earned more than $120,000 annually.

“The fact that they are apparently paying tens of thousands (of dollars) less than the last person earned, combined with trying to hold back on information, seems to indicate this whole issue does not meet the smell test,” said Morris, a Democrat and former Waukegan mayor.

“They may not have contacted Rep. Durkin directly in relation to his sister-in-law, nor did he contact them, but they are probably using the old ‘good old boy’ process of booking a favor even if not asked to collect in the future.”

The tollway board is appointed by the Illinois governor and typically the executive director is chosen in consultation with or by the governor.

The tollway suffers from a history as a “political and patronage playground,” despite reform efforts, Morris said. “It looks like we might well be moving back to that game at the expense of toll and taxpayers in Illinois. When I was on the board, Chairwoman Paula Wolff was very careful to keep the hiring process professional. There is absolutely nothing wrong with hiring someone related to a prominent political figure as long as that person has the credentials for the job.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner said any questions were “best posed to the tollway. They do their own hiring and know their employees’ credentials.”

Earlier, McGinnis said, “no one from the tollway was contacted by Rep. Jim Durkin regarding her application, nor was he listed as reference on her application. The contention that patronage was somehow in play is not applicable.”

Durkin’s resume summarizes herself as an executive “accomplished in managing customer service … while simultaneously exceeding sales goals.” Listed skills include: negotiator, customer relations, budgeting, design, project scheduling.

At Workspace she developed new clients through marketing and managed projects using order expediting, shipping schedules and installation phasing. Her resume indicates she was active in project phasing from planning, architectural and design, and construction.

She was an account manager at Office Concepts Inc. from April 1994 to August 1996, maintaining national accounts with an emphasis in design and service-oriented sales. She was an account coordinator at Office Equipment Co. of Chicago and formulated price quotations, verified furniture specifications, placed orders and coordinated installation, the resume states.

The tollway is embarked on a massive $12 billion road building program and the general manager is described as a “key staff and resource person” to the chief engineer.

Tollway officials said the job entails oversight of the Engineering Department contract services unit, document control group and web-based project management team. That involves assisting tollway engineers and managers with processing contract paperwork and complying with documentation procedures involving 240 contracts.

The engineering manager also manages the flow of contract documentation from advertising bids to closeout and works with the diversity, procurement, legal and finance departments.

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