Not long after taking office in 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation that restructured the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, promising “transparency and accountability” and declaring: “Our new leadership will uphold the highest ethical standards, deliver the value to taxpayers and serve Illinoisans in every corner of our state.”
A new lawsuit filed by two former high-ranking tollway officials paints a different picture of the state agency under Pritzker’s chosen team, accusing now-former board chairman Will Evans of trying to steer contracts to favored firms and engaging in patronage hiring.
“After an initial honeymoon phase, beginning in late 2020 and continuing throughout 2021, Evans, with the help of the tollway’s new general counsel, Kathleen Pasulka-Brown, began trying to exert enormous control over the operations of the tollway and in doing so violated several state laws and tollway policies,” according to the lawsuit, filed in DuPage County by Kimberly Ross and Dionna Brookens.
“Some leaders within the tollway allowed this to happen while others, including plaintiffs” and the agency’s top administrator, then-executive director Jose Alvarez, “tried to stop him.”
Ross and Brookens say in the suit that they were fired in retaliation for doing that and that Pasulka-Brown took the unusual step of sending the Illinois State Police to Brookens’ home “to collect her tollway property.”
Evans, a former People’s Gas executive who resigned his tollway post in February following a power struggle with Alvarez, among other controversies, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Pritzker appointed Evans and Alvarez to the tollway in 2019 after signing legislation, backed by then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, he said would reform the agency.
Alvarez resigned last March.
Pasulka-Brown, who was appointed to the tollway post in 2019 by Attorney General Kwame Raoul with the consent of Evans, declined to comment.
A lawyer for Ross and Brookens says “neither I nor my clients will be commenting” on the suit, which names the tollway, Evans and Pasulka-Brown as defendants.
A Pritzker spokeswoman said Friday: “The administration doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation and had not seen the lawsuit until yesterday. We take all allegations of wrongdoing seriously and would not tolerate any violations of state law. . . . The governor is committed to ensuring that the tollway operates effectively and ethically.”
In 2019, Alvarez hired Ross as the agency’s chief administrative officer, responsible for overseeing the tollway’s “administrative, human resources and support services,” according to the lawsuit, which is one of several to have recently targeted the conduct of tollway brass.
Alvarez hired Brookens as chief procurement compliance officer for the agency, which is planning more than $1 billion in capital improvements this year, responsible for “overseeing procurement and contract compliance for the tollway,” the suit says.
Last year, Evans inserted himself into the procurement process with a software company called SAP, according to the lawsuit.
“For some years now, the tollway has utilized SAP software, which it procured through a company called SAP, for some of its technology needs,” the suit says. “In seeking to update other systems, Defendant Evans told Plaintiff Brookens and members of her team that he wanted to broaden SAP’s scope within the tollway instead of considering other vendors. Defendant Evans had worked with the company SAP while he was at People’s Gas.”
“In or around March or April of 2021, the chief of IT told Plaintiff Brookens that he felt pressured by Defendant Evans to move the expansion of SAP along quickly without going through the normal and statutorily required procurement processes,” the suit says.
“Around that same time, Plaintiff Brookens learned that Defendant Evans was having direct conversations with SAP representatives about expanding their systems within the tollway,” which was problematic because the law and procurement rules “only allow procurement staff to have those discussions and only at specific times in the process,” according to the suit.
Later, Evans wanted “SAP employees to assist in developing the scope” of a bid solicitation, “giving them an advantage,” the lawsuit says.
It’s unclear how that situation ended up.
Tollway officials wouldn’t comment beyond putting out a written statement that says, “The Illinois tollway strongly disputes the plaintiffs’ unsubstantiated claims and will vigorously seek to refute their allegations.”
A spokesman for SAP says the company “is not a party in the complaint, and we do not comment on litigation.”
Also in 2021, the lawsuit accuses Evans of interfering in the hiring process — which has defined rules to prevent patronage hiring.
“Evans was aware of the tollway’s hiring policies, yet between January and August 2021, he repeatedly pushed Plaintiff Ross to ignore these policies and hire two of his friends,” the lawsuit says.
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October 28, 2022 at 05:02PM