College tuition waivers awarded by a member of one of Chicago’s best-known political clans are under criminal investigation by a federal grand jury probing possible abuses in the state’s soon-to-be-dismantled legislative scholarship program.
|Rep. Dan Burke|
The grand jury in Chicago subpoenaed state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), brother of Ald. Ed Burke (14th) and brother-in-law to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, making the veteran House Democrat at least the third known current or former lawmaker whose waivers are being probed by the feds.
The March 21 subpoena, released by the Illinois House in response to an open-records request by the Chicago Sun-Times, seeks “all information” about “Representative Daniel J. Burke’s procedures for the establishment, awarding and operation of the Illinois General Assembly Scholarship.”
The federal government’s request to Burke also seeks records “pertaining to receipt of any funds or gift in connection with the award of the scholarship, including the identity of any person/entity giving any funds or gift, the amount or gift received, and the date received.”
Burke has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing. Messages left on his cell phone and at both of his legislative offices went unreturned Wednesday.
Burke’s subpoena follows a joint investigation last August by the Sun-Times and Better Government Association into his awarding of tuition waivers to a young, Downstate woman Burke once described as a member of his state government “family.”
Sarah Rae Dowis got nearly $70,000 in tuition set aside by Burke under a program beset for decades by cronyism, insider dealings and sleight of hand. Earlier this month, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation that abolishes the program on Sept. 1.
Records show that Burke awarded Dowis tuition waivers while she attended Southern Illinois University between 2003 and 2008. She is the daughter of his onetime legislative secretary in Springfield, Judy Dowis, who worked for him for a six-year stint ending in early 2003 and now is the Springfield secretary for state Sen. Maggie Crotty (D-Oak Forest).
In sworn paperwork submitted to the State Board of Education, Sarah Dowis listed her permanent residence as a small bungalow in the 5700 block of South Homan Avenue in Burke’s district. She even registered to vote there in 2005, midway through her college career.
Neither she nor her family owns that property. Instead, it’s home to the elderly parents of Burke’s Chicago-based legislative secretary, Teresa Sanchez, whose mother told the BGA and Sun-Times that Dowis used to show up occasionally.
State law requires that legislative scholarship recipients live within the boundaries of the awarding lawmaker’s district.
In an interview last year, Burke described Dowis’ time at the South Homan address as “sporadic” and said “delicate and private” personal issues confronting the young woman necessitated her move from Downstate to the South Homan Avenue home in his legislative district.
Before forwarding Dowis’ tuition-waiver paperwork over to the State Board of Education, Burke’s Chicago secretary, Sanchez, notarized the documents that listed the young woman’s “permanent address” as the Homan residence of Sanchez’ parents.
Dowis also submitted to Burke’s office a copy of a state identification card listing the South Homan address as her residence, but she didn’t obtain that card until two days after getting her first tuition waiver approved by Burke in July 2004.
That residency claim does not square with the address Dowis gave either the secretary of state to obtain her driver’s license or the one she provided to Southern Illinois University on her admissions application.
Between 2000 and 2010, on her driver’s license, she disclosed to Secretary of State Jesse White’s office that her home address was in Downstate Chatham, more than 200 miles away from the home in Burke’s district. Her SIU application listed Downstate Divernon as her home, which is where her mother lives.
Judy Dowis declined comment Wednesday, referring questions to her attorney, who could not be reached. Sanchez did not return a phone message.
Randall Samborn, a spokesman for Acting U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro, declined comment Wednesday on the federal subpoena.
In last year’s interview, Burke said he could not explain the address discrepancies and did not monitor Dowis’ “comings and goings” but insisted he was certain she did not create a sham residence in order to qualify for his legislative scholarship.
Burke consistently had been against abolishing the legislative tuition waiver program, casting a “no” vote on an abolition bill on March 21 — ironically, the same day the subpoena went out to his district office in the 2600 block of West 51st Street. In May, after receiving the subpoena, Burke flipped on the issue and voted in favor of eliminating legislative tuition waivers.
After the August 2011 Sun-Times/BGA report on Burke, the State Board of Education requested that the FBI investigate the matter. The subpoena represents the first confirmation that the agency’s request resulted in action by the feds.
Burke isn’t the only current or sitting lawmaker enmeshed in the investigation.
In June, the same federal grand jury probing Burke’s waivers subpoenaed legislative tuition waiver records from state Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago). Earlier this year, the Sun-Times reported that five college students listed her former home address on their waiver applications as their in-district residence, despite some having driver’s licenses or voter registrations linking them to homes outside her legislative district. Collins signed those documents before submitting them to the State Board of Education.
Last year, legislative tuition waiver records for lobbyist and former state Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago) were subpoenaed in April of 2011, and again in July of that year.
This story was written and reported by Robert Herguth of the BGA and Dave McKinney of the Chicago Sun-Times. To reach them, call (312) 821-9030 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.