For the better part of the last decade, hotel owners Jon and Mark Weglarz fought hard to dampen the aggravating noise caused by screeching train brakes outside their Midway-area properties.

It took the intervention of the Weglarz brothers’ longtime property tax lawyer — then House Speaker Michael J. Madigan — to find a solution. Now Illinois taxpayers are footing the $98 million bill for what would undoubtedly be one of the most expensive brake jobs in history.

A Better Government Association investigation found the Madigan-sponsored project is among nearly $4 billion in pet projects slipped unceremoniously into the state’s largest-ever capital projects bill by politicians during the 2019 legislative session.

Dubbed “Rebuild Illinois,” the package was supposed to help advance Illinois into the 21st Century with $45 billion in infrastructure improvements including roads, bridges, rail improvements and other public works projects.

But through a process largely shrouded in secrecy, individual powerbrokers in state government were allowed to move many of their favored projects — traditionally called pork — to the top of the list without the normal bureaucratic scrutiny and screening usually given to massive public works projects, the BGA found.

Until his ouster last year amid a sweeping federal corruption probe, Madigan played an outsized role in the allocation of funds for these projects, referred to in state records as “leadership additions.”

A BGA examination of public records found at least $144 million went to just four projects backed by Madigan, the longest-serving house speaker in U.S. history. Each of those projects benefitted those to whom the former speaker has personal, professional or political ties.

In addition to the $98 million brake job, Madigan delivered another $31 million for a charter school that provided the BGA records detailing only $1.5 million in requests to lawmakers, $9 million for a Chicago high school even though nobody from the Chicago Public Schools sought it and another $6 million for a suburban airport control tower a Madigan political ally wanted for years.

Madigan declined to be interviewed for this report. In a written response, the Weglarz brothers said they never requested the $98 million, and declined to answer questions centered on whether Madigan’s dual roles as both their lawyer and the elected state representative for their hotels played a role in securing it.

Trains at the Belt Railway yard, at 6900 S. Central Ave. (Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times)

The longstanding practice of awarding lawmaker pork-barrel projects to help win favor back home has been the subject of criticism, ethics panels and media reports for decades. In 2011, federal lawmakers banned the practice in Washington amid allegations it was a conduit for corruption and wasteful spending.

Last year, the practice made a comeback in Congress, but with reforms. Elected leaders in Washington must publicly disclose — on their websites — each earmark they’ve requested, with dollar amounts and justifications for the use of taxpayer funds.

No such disclosures are required in Illinois.

Unvetted and secret

The Rebuild Illinois capital improvement spending passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2019, crammed with pools of money for public works projects to be vetted by state agencies, many long sought by officials from traffic engineers to parks superintendents to airport administrators.

Most of the $45 billion in projects were lumped into general categories where approval for specific projects — which actual bridge gets fixed, which bike paths gets built — isn’t determined until after proponents successfully pitch the plans to state bureaucrats and other officials.

But the subset of $4 billion in “Leadership Additions to Rebuild Illinois” — like the noise-abatement project — were tacked on with little public scrutiny by the Democratic majority leaders in the General Assembly who control both houses, as well as by Gov. J.B. Pritzker himself, according to documents from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

Of the $4 billion, $2 billion went for 18 projects each labeled a “Governor’s Office Addition,” the GOMB documents showed, while $368 million were labeled “House Democrat Leadership Addition,” and $326 million were labeled “Senate Democrat Leadership Addition.” The remaining $1.2 billion were identified only as “leadership additions.”

The $4 billion came in addition to “member initiatives” that were part of the Rebuild Illinois plan in which $600 million was set aside for state senators and representatives for projects in their districts.

Finding out which lawmaker — or leader — sponsored which earmark is not straightforward, as sponsors’ names are not cited in the bill.

The BGA requested lists of sponsors from the governor’s office as well as the four legislative caucuses representing the House and Senate Democrats and Republicans. None supplied their lists.

And nowhere does the term “leadership additions” appear in the legislation Pritzker signed into law. Only after the BGA requested project records from the GOMB — two years later — was the existence of the “leadership additions” revealed, and the list of projects specified.

Asked how specific projects wound up as part of the select group of additions, the Pritzker administration said the governor picked his projects based largely on his personal contacts and observations.

“Project ideas came from every corner of Illinois. The governor gathered ideas as he witnessed the need with his own eyes and from listening to residents as he traveled the state, even before he was elected the state’s chief executive,” GOMB spokeswoman Carol Knowles said.

“Lawmakers…held public meetings throughout the state and working groups/legislative committees discussed projects and funding options throughout early 2019. Project ideas often came from multiple groups.”

In addition to Pritzker, the two other key players who oversaw the additions were Madigan and then-Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, records show. Madigan declined to answer a list of written questions. Cullerton, now retired from elected office, said his memory was cloudy.

“I’m sorry, I really don’t remember the details of this legislation that was well over two years ago,” he said.

‘I was stunned’

The noise problems for the Weglarz brothers began in 2014 after a near-accident at the nearby Belt Railway switching yard — the largest in North America — prompted officials there to add a second set of brakes on the tracks. After that work was completed, patrons at the Weglarz brothers’ three hotels in suburban Bedford Park complained about sleepless nights due to screeching train brakes.

The noise peaked at 95 decibels, far exceeding the 65 decibel maximum allowed by village ordinance, according to a study commissioned by the hotel owners.

Hyatt Place Chicago/Midway Airport , 6550 S. Cicero Ave., Bedford Park, one of three hotels where noise from the Belt Railway yard has disrupted guests’ sleep. A $98 million state grant for work at the railyard is expected to mitigate the noise.  (Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times)

For years, the brothers vigorously relayed to authorities the complaints of their guests, especially flight crews laying over from Midway. They got local tax dollars to help pay for sound insulation at the hotels. They hired noise consultants, as did suburban leaders. The brothers even took their complaints to the state’s pollution control board.

They also enlisted the help of Bedford Park Village President Dave Brady, who told the BGA he decided to ask Madigan for the money “on a whim.”

“I was stunned when we got the call,” Brady said of the earmark, which was the largest Rebuild allocation the BGA found with direct ties to Madigan.

A spokesman for the railyard said no officials there requested the state grant. In recent years, the Belt has taken other steps to lower the level of noise caused by the brakes. While it has helped, noise issues still persist.

The earmark authorizes the Illinois Department of Transportation to spend up to $98 million. IDOT is currently assessing the noise issues as the state works to solve the problem.

Madigan’s property tax appeal law firm, Madigan & Getzendanner, has represented the brothers’ Bedford Park hotel properties for years, saving them $3 million in property taxes over three years, according to Cook County records.

Even with the property taxes reduced, the hotels are an important source of revenue for the village and other government bodies, paying $4.1 million in state and local taxes a year, according to a brief the Weglarz brothers filed when they made their since-dropped noise complaint to the pollution control board.

Brady said he approached Madigan about money for another project besides the railyard work — an overpass at Harlem Avenue and 65th Street that received $150 million in state funding through the regular state operating budget.

Ties between Madigan and Bedford Park run deep.

Madigan’s longtime friend and ally, former U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski, has lobbied for the village since 2007. Madigan & Getzendanner also has handled property tax appeals for Lipinksi and his two children, including former U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, though a Madigan spokesperson said the law firm did not collect fees for the work that saved them almost $30,000 over six years.

Noise from the nearby Belt Railway yard has become a disruption at several nearby hotels, including the Residence Inn by Marriott/Chicago Midway Airport  6638 S. Cicero Ave., Bedford Park. A $98 million state grant for work at the railyard is expected to mitigate the noise. (Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times)

At the time Rebuild Illinois was being debated in Springfield, Bill Lipinski was collecting $5,000 a month from Bedford Park. He made more than $500,000 from the village between 2012 and 2020, village records show.

Brady said while Lipinski knew about the noise problem he did not lobby specifically for that earmark. Still, in the months immediately preceding Rebuild Illinois’ passage Lipinski was talking to Madigan as many as four times a month, according to invoices Lipinski filed with other lobbying clients.

Bill Lipinski did not respond to emailed questions.

The $6 million tower

The relationship between Madigan and the Lipinski family also played a role in a $6 million “Leadership Addition” that was added to Rebuild Illinois for a control tower at Lewis University Airport in Romeoville, which serves corporate aircraft and is a reliever airport for Midway and O’Hare airports.

As a congressman, Dan Lipinski worked for years to get federal funding for the control tower but when federal government funding was slow to materialize, records show Lipinski got the Illinois legislature to move quickly.

In an email obtained by the BGA through a public records request, the airport’s lobbyist, Jason Tai, wrote that Lipinski launched the earmark process by pushing for the grant with Madigan. Tai noted elected officials “carried a whole lot of water on this from the initiation of this from Congressman Lipinski advocating with Speaker Madigan to kick star(t) things.”

Before Rebuild Illinois passed, Tai, a one-time congressional chief of staff for both Dan and Bill Lipinski, asked airport officials in another email to check with state lawmakers and see if funding for the control tower could be included in the capital bill.

“Heard from someone close to the Speaker that its (sic) getting quite real,” Tai wrote, following up days later with news their efforts had succeeded “(t)hanks to the leadership of Congressman Lipinski, (Romeoville) Mayor (John) Noak and your state legislators …”

John Connor, then the state representative for the district, including the airport, told the BGA he pressed for tower funding as part of Rebuild Illinois. However, he said he was “not privy to the process used to determine which projects from members made it into the capital bill or why certain projects were not included.” Connor was elected as a state senator in 2020.

The airport is located in the third congressional district that Dan Lipinski represented until last year. The congressional seat is now held by U.S. Rep. Marie Newman, who defeated Lipinski in the 2020 Democratic primary. Madigan backed Lipinski in the primary and carried the Madigan-controlled 13th Ward for Lipinski. Madigan is also the longtime Democratic State Central committeeman for the congressional district. Lipinski had listed getting the tower funding as a major accomplishment during the campaign.

Lewis University Airport control tower under construction in Romeoville. (Rich Hein/Sun-Times)

In response to BGA questions about efforts to get Rebuild Illinois money for the control tower, Lipinski said he worked on the initiative “after serving as a transportation co-chair on Governor Pritzker’s infrastructure transition committee.” He also said the project was a long-time priority for him.

“When the new congressional maps were released in spring 2011, I visited with all of the mayors in what would be the new sections of the Third Congressional District,” Lipinski said in his email response. “One of Romeoville Mayor John Noak’s top priorities for economic development in the village and the surrounding area was to improve the safety and ease of use of Lewis University Airport (LOT) which included adding a control tower.”

David Silverman, chairman of the governmental district that owns and operates the airport, told the BGA it was “fortunate to receive the $6 million” and that the tower was “difficult to finance because the Joliet Regional Port District does not levy any property taxes,” and as such is dependent on operating revenues and government grants. The port district acquired the airport from Lewis University in 1989.

He said the tower was “much needed” and will “increase greatly the safety of over one-hundred thousand takeoffs and landings” each year. “The Lewis University Airport is one of the busiest airports in the State of Illinois,” he said.

The tower, now under construction, is scheduled to open in May.

‘Tell me you’re not kidding’

The third earmark tied to Madigan went to the Academy for Global Citizenship, a privately run but publicly funded charter school founded in 2008 on the Southwest Side near Madigan’s district. It received $31 million, almost enough to fully fund the school’s plans to build a new campus on six acres formerly occupied by the LeClaire Courts public housing development west of Cicero Avenue and just south of the Stevenson Expressway.

The $31 million is more than half of the $58.3 million earmarked for individual Chicago schools in the entire Rebuild Illinois infrastructure bill, according to Chalkbeat Chicago. The grant is especially remarkable because charter schools typically receive little taxpayer support for school construction.

The grant came after the Academy in 2019 hired Jeffrey Glass, a former top Madigan state employee turned lobbyist, public records show.

Following Glass’ advice, school founder Sarah Elizabeth Ippel met with state Sen. Antonio Munoz, a Democrat from Chicago, and requested he sponsor a $1 million grant as one of his “member initiatives,” since the school is in Munoz’s district, according to emails and texts the BGA received through public records requests.

But Munoz told the BGA he didn’t do that, saying the $31 million grant was “not my initiative.”

During the busy final weeks of the legislative session in 2019, Glass and Ippel made multiple attempts to secure funding. In addition to the two courting Munoz, Glass also told Ippel he intended to meet with Madigan, the emails and texts show.

The emails and texts do not detail precisely what happened next but other public records show that around the same time Glass was approaching Madigan Glass also hired former Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski, 23rd, a close Madigan ally, to work with him on the Academy account.

Zalewski has become embroiled in the same sweeping federal probe that forced Madigan from office.

The investigation has focused on utility giant Commonwealth Edison and its efforts to hire lobbyists tight with Madigan in order to influence him to advance ComEd’s political efforts in Springfield. As part of the probe, investigators are examining how it happened that ComEd hired Zalewski, though neither he nor Madigan have been charged with wrongdoing.

One month after hiring Zalewski and telling Ippel he planned to meet with Madigan, Glass texted Ippel with news as the Rebuild Illinois bill was being finalized.

“I think I got you $31 million,” he wrote.

“Please tell me you’re not kidding,” Ippel responded.

“Slow down. I’m checking the figure and the decimals,” Glass texted back, then added, “It’s correct. $31 million.”

“This is an incredible day,” Ippel wrote back.

State records show the $31 million was another “House Democrat Leadership Addition” line item.

The future site of the Academy for Global Citizenship school on Chicago’s Southwest Side near West 44th Street and South Laporte Avenue. (Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times)

Neither Glass nor Madigan would answer questions from the BGA about the grant. But disclosure reports filed by Illinois lobbyists show Glass had unique access to Madigan: in 2019, he was the only lobbyist who reported picking up the tab for dinner or drinks with the speaker in Springfield or Chicago.

The Academy paid Glass $7,500 for six weeks of work, public records show. Once Rebuild passed, Glass “provided a verbal cancellation notice,” according to the Academy’s director of operations.

A year later, in July 2020, Chicago rezoned the former CHA property to permit the Academy to build its school. In the following months, Ippel tried repeatedly to get the state funds released, emails and records show, by sending direct messages to the governor himself and dropping Madigan’s name in emails to Pritzker’s staff.

“I also confirmed that Speaker Madigan has submitted the request to the Governor’s office,” she wrote to Bria Scudder, one of Pritzker’s top deputies. Emails show Scudder quickly forwarded the message to the director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, which plays a critical role in releasing state grant funds.

Ippel also traded at least 19 messages with Mark Jarmer, a top Madigan aide, who in turn repeatedly called another state official on the academy’s behalf, records show, before finally succeeding in getting the money released to the academy.

“I spoke with GOMB today at 430 and was told your paperwork was sent yesterday. I am relieved, as I know are you,” Jarmer texted Ippel.

Ippel declined multiple requests for an interview but in response to written questions academy officials said through a spokesperson they received the $31 million grant because the school project “will extend beyond the public school mission,” provide a neighborhood hub on vacated CHA land “that has experienced decades of disinvestment” and “catalyze revitalization on Chicago’s southwest side.”

Academy officials did not answer questions about what role Madigan played in helping secure the $31 million. Neither Jarmer, Madigan, Glass, nor Zalewski responded to emailed questions from the BGA.

CPS didn’t ask for $9 million school grant

Another grant listed as a “House Democrat Leadership Addition” is a $9 million earmark for the John Hancock College Preparatory High School, a selective-enrollment high school in Madigan’s legislative district that has been a pet project of his for a decade.

The school received the funding even though nobody at CPS asked for it, according to records and interviews.

For 10 years, Madigan and his political ally Ald. Marty Quinn, 13th, pushed city officials to create a school on the Southwest Side for high-achieving students, in part because Quinn thought it would keep families from moving out of the city in search of better education opportunities.

A $9 million “House Democrat Leadership Addition” grant went toward a replacement building for John Hancock College Preparatory High School, 5437. W. 64th Pl., a selective-enrollment high school in former House Speaker Michael Madigan’s old legislative district on the Southwest Side that was a pet project of his. The school was given the state funding even though Chicago Public Schools officials didn’t request it. (Brian Rich/Sun-Times)

In 2014, Madigan and Quinn got their wish when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Hancock would become a selective-enrollment school. Four years later, Emanuel, Madigan and Quinn jointly announced Hancock would get a new state-of-the-art building to be located at 64th Place and Long Avenue in Madigan’s 22nd state legislative district.

The $9 million Rebuild Illinois grant is set to pay for “capital upgrades” for a construction project budgeted at $82 million.

A spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools said the $9 million grant was not requested by the board, but rather, “independently initiated by the Illinois House Democratic Caucus as a result of community requests” and would supplement the construction budget.

The grant was intended to help build a black box theater, eight additional classrooms, a second hard-wired computer lab, and increased lunchroom space that allows the school to consolidate lunch time from four periods to three, according to the board’s response to a BGA public records request.

The building was finished last year in time for the first day of school in August. The school board is working with state officials to collect the grant funds, according to CPS spokeswoman Sylvia Barragan.

The Madigan-favored school got $9 million of the more than $58 million earmarked in Rebuild for specific Chicago schools. Of the 642 Chicago public schools only the Academy for Global Citizenship received more. Most Chicago schools received nothing.

A Chicago native, Sandy Bergo began her professional career as a reporter for the Chicago Reporter, worked as a writer and producer for WBBM Radio, and for 20 years, was a producer with Pam Zekman’s investigative team at WBBM-TV.

She has shared in local and national awards for her work. Her stories have exposed bad doctors, campaign finance irregularities and government waste of taxpayers’ money.

In 2001, Sandy moved with her husband, Chuck Neubauer, to Washington D.C., where she worked as a freelance reporter, television producer and a staff writer for the Center for Public Integrity.

For 10 years until 2019, she was the executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism.

During that time, she collaborated with her husband on investigative stories for the Better Government Association.

Sandy and Chuck have one son and two grandsons.

Chuck Neubauer is an award-winning investigative reporter who has a five-decade track record of breaking high-impact stories about public officials, from Chicago City Council members to powerful members of Congress.

He is currently based in Washington, D.C. after years of working in Chicago as an investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and earlier for the Chicago Tribune where he shared in a Pulitzer Prize with the late George Bliss for a series on abuses in federal housing programs.

He and his wife, Sandy Bergo, have spent the last 10 years doing freelance investigative stories as special contributors for the Illinois Answers Project and the Better Government Association. Their reporting has looked into the actions of politicians ranging from Ald. Edward M. Burke to former House Speaker Michael J. Madigan to former Rep. Bobby Rush to Gov. J.B. Pritzker. They have also reported on how leaders of the Illinois legislature skirted campaign finance limits and also on the generous pensions some Illinois lawmakers receive.

At the Sun-Times, Neubauer, along with Mark Brown and Michael Briggs, reported in the 1990s that powerful House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski misused hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal taxpayer funds to purchase three personal cars, buy expensive gifts for friends and hire staffers who did personal work for him. Those disclosures were the basis for several counts in the federal indictment against Rostenkowski who pleaded guilty and served 17 months in prison.

Neubauer’s reporting also helped lead to federal criminal charges and convictions of former Illinois Governor Dan Walker, Illinois Attorney General William J. Scott and former Illinois State Treasurer Jerry Cosentino.

In 2001, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Los Angeles Times and later the Washington Times, exposing conflicts of interests involving Senate and House leaders.

Neubauer began his career as the BGA’s first intern in 1971 before becoming a reporter.