Following a review by state bureaucracies, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office has lifted a freeze on funding for projects earmarked by Illinois’ now-indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan.
The temporary freeze came after a group of nine Democratic state representatives requested it in the wake of Madigan’s 22-count indictment on corruption charges on March 2.
“Although some of the funding for these projects may have already been allocated,” said the March 7 letter submitted to Pritzker by the lawmakers. “We request another layer of review to determine whether they were an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”
The lawmakers cited a Jan. 21 investigation by the Better Government Association, published in the Chicago Sun-Times, that found four projects included by Madigan in a 2019 infrastructure bill all benefited those to whom the former speaker has personal, professional or political ties.
But two days after their initial letter to Pritzker the same group of lawmakers, led by State Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, backtracked and asked Pritzker to unfreeze the funding after getting pushback from other lawmakers in the state’s Latino caucus.
“They and other community leaders have been vocal advocates for these projects, and they remain vital investments in their communities,” the lawmakers wrote in a second letter to Pritzker. “We stand behind their need to get these projects finished.”
At the time, Pritzker’s office said the freeze would remain in place pending a review in an abundance of caution.
In an email to the BGA on Wednesday, the governor’s top spokeswoman said the review has been completed and the governor ordered the funds released in a March 11 letter. The governor’s office also provided the memos from state agencies detailing the results of the review.
There is no indication in the documents provided to suggest the Pritzker-ordered reviews touched on the lawmakers’ initial requests to examine whether the projects were “appropriate” or whether any conflicts of interest existed.
Instead, the reviews were of the kind conducted on most state expenditures, making sure paperwork is complete, state policies are in place and backgrounds vetted.
Each of those Madigan-sponsored projects — among nearly $4 billion in pork-barrel funding slipped unceremoniously into the $45 billion legislation — are now back on track.
Of that $4 billion in projects added into Rebuild Illinois by politicians, $2 billion are from Pritzker, the BGA investigation found.
In their letter to Pritzker, the lawmakers said the indictment accusing Madigan of trading his office to enrich himself and his friends raises new questions about the potential for parallels.
“Everything that is tied to Madigan is called into question,” Williams told the BGA at the time. “We owe it to the taxpayers to carefully scrutinize these projects.
“If there is a way to recoup any misused funds and put them to use for infrastructure projects for schools, roads and bridges, mental health clinics, food pantries, or other such critical needs, we should find it,” she said.
Among the four projects listed by the lawmakers was a $98 million noise abatement project at the Belt Railway yards, where screeching train brakes have interrupted the sleep of patrons at nearby hotels in Bedford Park.
The hotel owners, Jon and Mark Weglarz, have been clients of Madigan’s tax appeal law practice Madigan & Getzendanner.
“Was this huge expenditure of taxpayer funds intended to benefit the community or was it advanced to benefit Madigan’s private law clients?” Williams said in her original press release. “It appears that in this case, the interests of Illinois residents took a back seat to the culture of cronyism which was the hallmark of the Madigan era.”
Although the $98 million brake job would benefit the Weglarz-owned hotels and their patrons, the grant request came from the Village of Bedford Park. The work is being managed by the Illinois Department of Transportation. According to the review memo, the IDOT found a less expensive alternative to reducing the noise. Funding for this project has been reduced to approximately $22 million.
The lawmakers also asked Pritzker to freeze payments pending a review of three other projects listed in the BGA report.
Those projects included a $31 million earmark for the Academy for Global Citizenship, $9 million for the John Hancock College Preparatory High School and another $6 million to build a control tower at Lewis University Airport in Romeoville.
All were sponsored by Madigan and were supported by Madigan political allies or lobbyists with close ties to Madigan.
They were all funded through a process largely shrouded in secrecy, where Madigan and other 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.
Have a question or a story to share?