By Robert Heuer
Joseph Kotlarz stared stiffly at the witness stand in a Du Page County courtroom. I’d never seen the 41-year-old state representative before, except in the paper. His squat frame was stuffed into an expensive suit.
Kotlarz started in politics at the age of 26, when he was elected 35th Ward alderman in 1983. Initially considered an antimachine independent, he ended up siding with the Vrdolyak faction during Council Wars and quickly became known for his ambition, floating trial balloons to run for secretary of state and to replace George Dunne as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
In 1992 Kotlarz was elected state representative from the city’s northwest side. During his five years in the statehouse, he remained a private attorney, plying a lucrative trade appealing Cook County property tax assessments. He also made inroads into Du Page County, representing clients doing business with the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.
Kotlarz now faced criminal charges with ISTHA’s former executive director, Robert Hickman. Before becoming tollway boss in 1991, Hickman had been Governor Jim Edgar’s longtime chief fund-raiser. Over a three-year period, Hickman had awarded millions of dollars in contracts to clients represented by Kotlarz. The pair had acted illegally, prosecutors claimed, when the tollway sold a 12-acre parcel for $4.04 million to another Kotlarz client, Waste Management Inc. Hickman was never accused of personally profiting from the deal, but Kotlarz walked away with the lion’s share of a 6 percent commission. They were charged with theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft. Hickman was also accused of official misconduct.
Their two-and-a-half-week trial, in the spring of 1997, was covered by Associated Press reporter James Webb. “If you want to do business with government, hire a go-between with connections,” Webb wrote in his final story. “That time-tested axiom was vividly illustrated in the trial that…detailed interwoven relationships between lobbyists, public officials and high-powered corporate executives that are entirely lawful but seldom exposed to public view.” This case, he added, was “likely to leave motorists wondering who’s watching the money they drop into a tollroad collection basket.”
The trial turned on the narrow question of whether the codefendants had conspired to inject a real estate broker into the deal without the authorization of either Waste Management or the ISTHA board. The broker, Eagle Realty Service in Arlington Heights, was paid a $240,000 commission. Eagle kept $50,000 and passed along the remaining $190,000 to Kotlarz.
Kotlarz’s lawyer, David Stetler, tried to show Waste Management knew about the broker’s fee and ISTHA lost nothing because the money had come from the buyer. Kotlarz never made a secret of the commission–he declared it on his income taxes. Hickman’s attorney, William Conlon of the law firm Sidley & Austin, wanted to separate his client from the transaction altogether. Hickman had made it an official tollway policy never to hire a broker–he thought the commission was Waste Management’s business alone.
Waste Management had been trying to get the land for years–Kotlarz was the third consultant retained by the company to lobby the tollway agency. In 1986 it had hired Gene Callahan, a former aide to U.S. senator Alan Dixon. Strike two was lawyer Tom Fawell, a member of a prominent political family in Du Page County and a friend of state senate president James “Pate” Philip.
When Hickman took the reins of ISTHA in 1991, he found the agency owned a lot of land it couldn’t use. He appointed a head of real estate, and word soon spread he was interested in selling. Peter Huizenga, a member of Waste Management’s board of directors, hired Kotlarz at $180 an hour to arrange a deal with his friend, the new tollway boss. “In 1991, the guy to talk to was Joe Kotlarz,” Stetler said, “and Huizenga knew that.”
Huizenga sat down to dinner with Kotlarz and Hickman, and, according to testimony, Kotlarz billed the company $200 for the meeting. On the stand, Huizenga denied having any knowledge of the commission on the eventual sale.
As negotiations proceeded between Waste Management and ISTHA, Kotlarz invited Michael Blonstein of Eagle Realty to take part in the deal. They’d had previous business dealings, and Kotlarz offered Eagle $50,000. “I asked him what was entailed, and he said, ‘Nothing. I’m just paying you back,'” Blonstein testified. “That sounds too easy,” he claimed to have told Kotlarz. “Is this deal on the up-and-up?” Kotlarz allegedly responded, “Absolutely.”
The day I showed up at the Du Page Judiciary Center in west suburban Wheaton, defense attorneys were in the middle of an intense four-hour grilling of a corporate lawyer named Roger Berres. As director of real estate for Waste Management, Berres oversaw Kotlarz’s work and authorized the land purchase from ISTHA. He had since left the company.
William Conlon asked Berres about an “official written reprimand” he’d gotten in 1996 for investing in companies doing business with Waste Management. Berres was dismissive of the reprimand since it came from a “layman.” Later, under questioning by Stetler, he admitted this layman was his boss.
Berres had received a letter from Kotlarz regarding the sale, but deleted any mention of the $240,000 commission when he passed it along to his superiors, according to Du Page County assistant state’s attorney Neal Thompson. “The evidence showed he deceived his own management,” Thompson told me. People’s exhibit number four was a blown-up version of this document. The “forged” letter, as Stetler came to call it, wasn’t discovered until three months before the trial. Thompson told me prosecutors found it in a file Berres should have handed over to a grand jury two years earlier. No legal action was taken against him, Thompson said, because by the time this “privileged file” was uncovered the statute of limitations had already expired. When questioned on the stand, Berres would only say, “We hoped to pay the minimal amount necessary to acquire the property and were disappointed that we had to buy it all.”
Stetler and Conlon took turns denouncing Berres, claiming he’d deceived the defendants as well as his bosses. Berres was “Waste Management’s official representative,” Stetler told Judge Ronald Mehling. “He wasn’t in a conspiracy with my client to change tags. He is the director of real estate for Waste Management, and if Waste Management received a misrepresentation, Judge, it was from Waste Management and not Joe Kotlarz.” Conlon asserted a string of memos Berres had sent to Waste Management officials was “puffing” aimed at covering up the fact that the tollway “got a great deal.”
Du Page County assistant state’s attorney Alex McGimpsey viewed the defense’s attack on Berres as “a fog machine.” He said the doctored letter simply proved Waste Management officials didn’t know about the commission.
In the state’s interrogation of Berres, Thompson took the lead. Young and lanky, he fit the part of a very determined A student. Following the paper trail, he came to a series of letters, including one that Hickman had sent to Berres after Waste Management acknowledged its initial $2 million offer would have to be doubled to get the land. In that letter, dated July 17, 1991, Hickman first mentioned Eagle and its 6 percent commission on the final purchase price: “Your next proposal should include a reference to the broker fee.” This letter, Thompson argued, “demonstrates clearly that defendants were acting in concert to inject a sham broker into this transaction, whose only purpose was to act as a conduit to funnel money to Joe Kotlarz.”
Under the bright fluorescent lights, Berres appeared fatigued. He wore a gray jacket, white shirt, and a slightly pained expression. His necktie was crooked. Stetler tried to get him to acknowledge he’d already told both the state police and the grand jury he knew Kotlarz was acting as the broker for Waste Management. Berres had approved all of Kotlarz’s invoices, including those that contained references to time spent in contact with Eagle Realty, and though the brokerage fee was included in provision 18 on page nine of the ten-page contract, he insisted he didn’t know about it.
In his closing arguments, Thompson described Berres as “one of the most difficult witnesses I think anybody has ever seen….He is in a management position of a large corporation. He is expected as part of his job to handle things competently and reasonably….This whole deal reflects badly on him, his knowledge, his judgments, and his care. And like everybody else in this deal he turned a blind eye; he saw what little he wanted to see and let this go on….He’s been in trouble from the beginning, giving different interviews at different times….But more than anything, he’s petrified and he doesn’t want to have any part of this.”
“I was poorly prepared,” Berres mumbled as he was liberated from the stand and teetered out the door. Judge Mehling, who was quietly taking notes, later remarked, “Lawyers do not make good witnesses.”
The prosecution then called a tollway contractor to the stand. When companies paid Kotlarz his $5,000 monthly fee, tollway officials did indeed begin to return their calls. With Kotlarz’s help, Tenney Pavoni Associates saw its $260,000 in tollway business grow to more than $3.7 million. Another Kotlarz client had done no previous tollway work but soon landed a contract worth $1.4 million.
Mark Tenney, the former co-owner of Tenney Pavoni Associates, testified his firm had wanted a piece of the $550 million Tri-State widening project. He said he was uneasy when Kotlarz claimed to be “tight” with the tollway boss, yet his firm must have been pleased with the results–it had paid Kotlarz $90,000 in 1992. “I don’t think I would have hired anybody if they couldn’t get me work,” Tenney said.
After court adjourned, I approached Hickman and made small talk. I’d interviewed him several times before; the first occasion was back in December 1993 in his office at ISTHA headquarters in Downers Grove. I told him I’d recently seen a film clip from the final game of the 1957 NCAA basketball tournament, back when he was a Kansas University freshman sitting on the bench. The grainy black-and-white footage showed his teammate Wilt Chamberlain sprinting up and down the court. A reporter from City News Bureau was standing nearby and overheard our conversation. He asked Hickman for his opinion of college basketball today. Hickman suddenly became animated, sounding like one of the boys. You could easily imagine him chatting at a casino, or a bar, or on the phone, raising money for Jim Edgar. He complained that nowadays there was too much physical contact in college basketball. He thought too many guys got away with breaking the rules.
Hickman walked out of the building followed by his lawyer, his lawyer’s assistant, and various supporters. Stepping out into the fresh spring air, he immediately lit a cigarette and muttered to no one in particular, “This is the only vice I can still afford.”
Subsequent days brought a parade of past and present tollway officials. No one admitted to knowing a broker was involved in the Waste Management deal–except for Daniel Fusco.
Fusco was the senior member of the ISTHA board, having served from 1979 to ’92. He was a Cook County Democrat and the law partner of Phil Rock, Pate Philip’s predecessor as state senate president. As a lawyer who handled some real estate business, he’d been viewed by fellow board members as the resident expert. He testified that the broker’s commission was amply discussed in a series of meetings leading up to the full board’s approval of the deal in the spring of 1992. He also felt the transaction was very favorable to the tollway. He later told me, “The price was much more than the property was really worth.”
Conflicting testimony came from three other tollway officials. ISTHA deputy counsel Robert Douglas said he had no knowledge of the commission until he was told about it in August 1993 by tollway attorney Paul Olszewski. Douglas said he then took this information to ISTHA board chairman J.P. “Jack” Garrow. On the stand, Garrow echoed Douglas’s version of events but, perhaps inadvertently, infused his story with insights into an emerging power struggle that transformed the tollway’s most profitable land sale into a criminal court case.
The CEO of a $10 million-a-year printing company in Franklin Park, Garrow was also secretary of the Du Page County Republican Central Committee and a fund-raiser for Pate Philip. In the summer of 1991, Garrow ran into former ISTHA director Gayle Franzen during a brunch at the Glendale Country Club. He testified he’d heard some of Franzen’s thoughts about Hickman and later shared these with Pate Philip. He then confronted the new executive director.
“I told Mr. Hickman that I had been approached at a brunch over the previous weekend, and that the party–I didn’t mention the party’s name–had told me that the tollway was for sale. And that Mr. Kotlarz was going around calling on firms that were suppliers of the tollway authority, saying that he had a good relationship with the executive director and that he could get them some business at the tollway authority.”
“And what if anything did he say to you in response to that?” Neal Thompson asked.
“Mr. Hickman said this was news to him, and that if this was being done it was being done without his knowledge. And that that would have to stop.”
In another conversation, Garrow testified, Hickman told him the tollway’s chief counsel would soon be replaced. The new counsel would be chosen by attorney general Roland Burris.
“During that conversation was the name of the incoming chief counsel revealed to you by Mr. Hickman?” Thompson asked.
“Yes,” Garrow said.
“What was that person’s name?”
“Did he tell you who Frank Howard was?”
“Yes,” Garrow replied. “He said he was a former law partner of a good friend of his, Joseph Kotlarz.”
When cross-examined by the defense, Garrow said he had little or no recollection of almost every matter raised, though Stetler did manage to get him to concede that he’d neither read nor understood the contract the board approved in the Waste Management deal. The prosecution countered that this lapse was understandable because the board’s agenda included over 60 items. That excuse was ridiculed by Conlon, who pointed out a Tribune reporter saw fit to write about only one of those items–the tollway’s multimillion-dollar sale of that 12-acre parcel. In fact, the Tribune wrote about this unusual land deal twice, following meetings of the operations committee and the full board. Nevertheless, Garrow said he had no recollection of the particulars contained in the contract.
After Douglas brought the commission to Garrow’s attention in October 1993, Garrow talked to fellow board member Arthur Philip.
The younger brother of Pate Philip, Arthur Philip was a retired auto shop teacher at Joliet Junior College who’d been appointed to the tollway board in 1985 by former governor James Thompson. When he took the stand, he too had problems remembering events, obviously frustrating Stetler, who tried to prove that Philip had wanted to make the sale to Waste Management himself.
Stetler: “And in fact you yourself were involved with conversations from representatives of Waste Management earlier than 1991, weren’t you?”
Philip: “No sir.”
Stetler: “Do you know a fellow by the name of Tom Fawell?”
Philip: “Yes, I know Tom Fawell.”
Stetler: “He’s a pal of yours?”
Philip: “I wouldn’t describe him as a pal. I know him.”
Stetler: “How long have you known him?”
Philip: “Twenty years maybe.”
Stetler: “And he’s a member of the Fawell family that’s well-known in this area, is that right?”
Stetler: “And you are a member of a well-known family as well, right?”
“Judge, objection,” interrupted Alex McGimpsey.
Stetler: “Just trying to establish a general relationship, Judge. I am not going any further with it.”
Judge Mehling: “You may answer.”
Stetler: “Don’t you recall back in July of 1989 you had had an extended phone conversation with Tom Fawell concerning this 12-acre parcel?”
Philip: “No, I don’t.”
Stetler: “And don’t you remember that he visited with you on Saturday afternoon, July 8, 1989, regarding a proposed frontage road along the tollway connecting the Waste Management’s east and west offices?”
Philip: “Offhand, no, I don’t remember that.”
Stetler: “And do you recall that you left for a two-week vacation on July 9, 1989, and returned on Sunday, July 23, 1989?”
Philip: “I don’t.”
Stetler: “Don’t you remember upon your return you promised Tom Fawell that you were going to talk to the staff at the tollway and to again discuss the matter directly with Mr. Fawell?”
Stetler: “And did you suggest that Mr. Fawell not prod the tollway staff into any action until you return?”
Stetler: “Did you talk to him upon your return?”
Philip: “I don’t remember.”
Stetler: “You don’t remember any of that stuff?”
Philip: “No, I remember he mentioned to me that he was trying to get a traffic light for them–that’s all I remember.”
Stetler: “Do you know why he would put all that stuff in a letter and send it to his client at Waste Management?”
McGimpsey: “Objection, Judge.”
Stetler: “If I understood your testimony correctly, you never bothered to read the contract that you voted to approve. Is that right?”
Arthur Philip testified that board members rely on recommendations from the tollway staff because they don’t have time to understand everything they approve, working only several hours a week (for a $19,000 salary and an excellent benefits package). Philip said he didn’t know why the tollway would need to pay a commission to an outside firm. Conlon objected–even with the key provisions in his hand, Philip didn’t appear to understand the contract explicitly stated Waste Management, not ISTHA, was agreeing to pay the broker’s fee. Mehling sustained the objection, and assistant state’s attorney McGimpsey asked the judge to reconsider.
“Judge,” McGimpsey said, “I think the court should know why director Philip didn’t vote for the contract, or would not have voted for the contract had he known these salient facts.”
“Very well,” Mehling said. “Overruled. You may answer.”
Philip stuck to his story. “Well, again, we didn’t have a contract with anybody that I knew of. We had on our staff real estate experts. Our legal staff spent a good majority of their time doing real estate deals for the toll road. I don’t know why we would need an outside firm and pay an exorbitant commission to them to close a real estate deal that was a deal that had been going on for years, and there was no argument, I don’t believe, about any aspect of it. Waste Management wanted it, and we didn’t need it. So I don’t know why we would pay [the] $240,000 commission to anyone when we handle it in-house.”
Stetler: “Your honor, I object for this reason: They never did pay the $240,000 brokerage fee.”
One member of the Du Page County political establishment did speak up for the defendants. Former tollway director Gayle Franzen was now chairman of the Du Page County Board. He’d left his job in the bond business and bought into the Joliet Empress Casino, though now he reportedly wanted to sell his 2.2 percent stake in the casino for $7.1 million. The Sun-Times’s Steve Neal had speculated Franzen was getting ready to run for governor.
When Franzen took the stand, he denied ever telling Garrow the tollway was “for sale.” He said he’d tried to play peacemaker, inviting Garrow to lunch with Kotlarz so the tollway chairman could get acquainted with the newcomer. Franzen said Hickman and Kotlarz were once his “good friends.”
The defense was supremely confident. Neither Hickman nor Kotlarz planned to testify. Why should they? Waste Management’s representative had signed off on the deal, and the prosecution’s chief witnesses from ISTHA couldn’t recall the specifics of a contract that a senior board member claimed had been discussed in detail.
In the end, however, Mehling sided with the prosecution, who argued ISTHA’s sale of the land to Waste Management was not the result of a legitimate negotiation process. Assistant state’s attorney Neal Thompson later told me, “As we prepared our closing arguments, my colleague Alex McGimpsey came up with the phrase that this had not been an ‘arm’s-length transaction.’ If you and I act in good faith representing principals whose interests are not aligned, that is an arm’s-length transaction. But this was not.” Thompson claimed Waste Management’s top officials thought they were paying $4.04 million for the land, but the tollway collected only $3.8 million. He likened the transaction to a situation in which a home owner enlists a broker who agrees to take 6 percent of a $100,000 sale price; when the broker finds a buyer willing to pay $130,000, he returns to the seller in triumph, saying he’s sold the house for $110,000. The broker walks off with the 6 percent commission plus a $20,000 sum that neither the buyer nor the seller had agreed to pay. This, Thompson explained, was Hickman and Kotlarz’s crime: theft by deception.
In November 1997, six months after his conviction, Hickman walked into Mehling’s courtroom knowing he could be immediately ordered into custody to begin serving a sentence of at least four years in state prison. When he was indicted, he weighed 234 pounds. In the next two years he’d lose 30 pounds and more than $200,000 in legal fees, consuming his life savings. He’d taken to dressing casually, wearing sport jackets and slacks to court. But on his sentencing day Hickman wore a new suit.
Before Mehling entered the courtroom, Stetler took out a long blue slip of paper. It was a check from Kotlarz in the amount of $190,000. Making restitution, Stetler hoped, would spare his client from going to jail.
Hickman had fired his attorney, William Conlon. His new lawyer, Jack Donahue, pulled out all the stops to persuade the judge to grant Hickman probation. Donahue argued imprisonment would “serve no purpose but to placate political pundits.” A stack of letters had been delivered to Mehling’s chambers before the proceeding. Former Chicago Bears Sid Luckman and Doug Buffone vouched for Hickman. So did the man who had helped him get on the political path so many years before–Jim Edgar’s brother Fred. “Bob Hickman has always been a very dependable and unselfish person,” Fred Edgar wrote. Two other character witnesses, both businessmen, described Hickman as an honorable man who wouldn’t violate the terms of probation. Donahue told the judge there were many people counting on his client: a live-in girlfriend, an ex-wife, two children, and six grandchildren. And jail might aggravate a medical condition dating back to open-heart surgery in 1983. “He has no criminal history whatsoever,” Donahue said. “He’s lost everything: public office, his assets, and above all he’s lost his dignity.”
Joseph Kotlarz had also lost a lot–his law license, his seat in the General Assembly, and his consulting business. Yet, Stetler said, “He hasn’t lost his dignity.” Kotlarz sat in the first row of the visitors’ gallery next to his wife. Heather Kotlarz gripped her husband’s hand and stared wide-eyed at the judge, petrified. Joe still has his lovely wife, Stetler said, and his two small children. Recalling the day Mehling had issued the guilty verdict, Stetler said his client walked out to his car, picked up his cell phone, and called Springfield to tender his resignation from the Illinois house. “I was stunned,” Stetler said. “The first thing he thought about was other people.”
Stetler had encouraged Kotlarz to have his parents in the courtroom for the judge to see. But Kotlarz refused, Stetler said, because he didn’t want his parents to suffer through such an indignity. In the final days of the trial, a tearful Heather Kotlarz burst into the courtroom to tell her husband that his father had fallen over dead of a heart attack–further evidence, Stetler concluded, that the pain of a drawn-out trial was severe enough punishment for a man who had learned his lesson.
Then the defendants spoke. Hickman sat at the table reading a brief and sorrowful statement. His voice was so soft I could barely hear him, though my seat was only several feet away. Kotlarz bowed his head and said a few contrite words.
The prosecution wasn’t moved. These two “highly educated, well-placed people” put together a deal based on “absolute, pure greed” and ripped off the tollway, Thompson said. He noted that poor people found guilty of possessing crack invariably serve long stretches in prison. “With all the corrosive cynicism toward public agencies, it would deprecate the seriousness of their offense if they walk out of here with no jail time.”
Judge Mehling had sat motionless throughout the testimony, as unmoved by the theatrics as the big bronze seal of Illinois looming over his shoulder. “There are many things I could say that would be enlightening but not germane,” he began. His words were nearly drowned out by racket from the air-circulation system.
“This has been a difficult case, different from any this court gets,” Mehling said. Hickman and Kotlarz “have made something of their lives but…have gone astray of the law and are now convicted of serious offenses.” He slammed both Waste Management and the tollway. The company, he said, had entered into a land deal “not knowing whether their eyes were opened or closed,” while ISTHA’s board of directors sold off a choice piece of real estate with “a disheartening” lack of review. Nevertheless, he said, Hickman and Kotlarz had teamed up to extract a substantial sum to which Kotlarz was not entitled; the court was obliged to follow the law.
Mehling declined to go along with the prescribed punishment of either a minimum of four years in prison or four years’ probation. He sentenced each man to six months in the Du Page County Jail, plus four years’ probation and 400 hours of community service.
The defense lawyers asked to delay the sentencing order for three weeks, a request the judge granted. The room was suddenly filled with commotion. A woman sitting next to me stood up and hissed at the defendants. Behind me, two reporters whispered to each other, making sure they’d heard the details of the ruling correctly before joining the rush out the door.
Hickman remained seated. The jail sentence didn’t seem to surprise him. Kotlarz stood in the middle of the courtroom talking to his lawyer, who was still holding the long blue check. The $190,000 payment had been made out to both Waste Management and ISTHA, but the judge had ruled that all the money should go to the tollway. The Oak Brook company’s lawyer would later make a futile attempt to change Mehling’s mind.
Heather Kotlarz stared straight ahead, looking shell-shocked. Stetler hovered for a moment to offer condolences, but she didn’t move. Kotlarz slipped his arm around his wife’s shoulder, and the two walked out of the courtroom.
I intercepted Hickman as he strode to the door. I asked what he said in his statement to the judge. He told me he’d singled out Jack Garrow: “I had to get him. He’s the only bad guy in all of this.”
Downstairs, Hickman held a brief news conference. He said he planned to appeal and then took questions from reporters. After about five minutes, Donahue said that was enough. Everyone left the room except for two radio reporters. I asked what they thought of the scene they had just witnessed. One said he’d covered political corruption trials for a long time and he always felt like taking a shower as soon as he got home.
The day before Thanksgiving 1997, Hickman returned to court for another round of motions. Citing his client’s medical problem–a nearly full blockage of an artery to the heart–Donahue asked that Hickman be allowed to stay out of jail while pursuing an appeal. Judge Mehling agreed to delay the sentence until after the first of the year. In the meantime, he’d review Hickman’s medical records.
Following the hearing, Hickman paused to talk outside the courtroom. Donahue said good-bye and hurried down the hallway. When he returned a half hour later, he was surprised to see his client still standing in the same spot, speaking with me as I scribbled in a notebook.
The first of many more intimate conversations with Hickman began with my relating ISTHA’s latest legal troubles. In a class-action lawsuit against the tollway, Cook County circuit court judge Stephen Schiller had ruled the General Assembly’s lack of oversight was unconstitutional and asked lawmakers to find a remedy. ISTHA’s spin doctors reacted in the press: a Cook County Democrat wants to shut down the tollway. Buoyed by the rhetoric of suburban Republicans, this “worst-case” scenario was repeated so often it soon seemed this unlikely prospect had in fact been the judge’s ruling. ISTHA appealed, and the day before Hickman’s latest motion the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the tollways couldn’t be shut down pending the outcome of the appeal. (The lower court’s ruling was eventually overturned.)
I told Hickman what I’d read in that morning’s Tribune. A story headlined “Lawyers scramble to keep state tollways open” reported that both sides were asking the Supreme Court to extend Schiller’s deadline for the legislature to assume oversight control. With the deadline looming only three weeks away, ISTHA officials described Schiller’s ruling as a reaction to the climate of corruption that ended with the Hickman era.
Hickman rolled his eyes. “The next thing you know they’ll say I’m responsible for the Persian Gulf,” he said. “Nobody ever mentions the $30 million that I made for the tollway refinancing old bonds around the time of the 294 widening. There was some luck involved. But Nick Jannite, the tollway finance director, and DLJ, our bond underwriter, were watching the bond market and made suggestions that I acted upon.”
Hickman also claimed credit for launching the precursor of I-PASS, the electronic toll-collection system the current regime has touted as a solution to lengthy delays at toll plazas. The automatic vehicle-identification system began with a pilot program at ISTHA headquarters in the early 90s. The first glitches included a gate crashing down on the car of a senior tollway official.
“They’ve made no massive changes since I left,” Hickman said. He was still in touch with loyalists inside the agency. “What I hear is that the morale is the worst it’s ever been. There’s been no change in the way that a committee recommends and selects contractors. Pate Philip would be a nervous wreck if there were real oversight.”
Since 1996 ISTHA had spent $262,300 for outside lobbyists to protect the tollway’s interests in Springfield. One of the first, Hickman said, was “Pate’s buddy,” former Republican legislator Gene Hoffman. But given the General Assembly’s track record of doing whatever the tollway wanted, Hickman explained, the agency could have easily found a lobbyist in-house or simply done without.
Hickman blasted the prosecutors for fostering the notion that he and Joseph Kotlarz were bosom buddies. He contended Kotlarz was low on the pecking order of consultants who act as middlemen for companies seeking business from the state of Illinois. Most became acquainted with the system after serving as state employees.
“At one time I counted 87 consultants at the tollway with contracts for engineering, design, or inspection or environmental studies,” he said. Each firm had a consultant who, if he knew Hickman, could get the executive director to return a phone call. “They’d say, ‘So-and-so is real good at environmental. Can I bring him in to meet you?'” This was simply the way business was done, Hickman said. A client of Gayle Franzen had recently been awarded a $37 million contract for the electronic toll-collecting devices.
Consultants with connections naturally attract clients. According to the secretary of state, at the top of this list is Ronan Potts, a firm headed by Al Ronan, a former state representative and house transportation committee chair, with a total of 52 clients.
“I spread it around, brought in more contractors,” Hickman claimed. “Kotlarz repped five or six firms. If you’re going to try to get business for a company as a consultant, of course you’re going to say you know Hickman, IDOT secretary Kirk Brown, or the people at the Regional Transportation Authority.” He recalled the testimony of one contractor. “He said they hire consultants not because they’ll guarantee business but because they’ll give you the opportunity to meet people like me. Consultants are always beating the tollway executive director to death. They want to see you, to come in and kiss your ring so they can call their client and say, ‘I just talked to Bob and I think you may get something.’ The work is spread around to all these engineering firms which are all close to the same percentage. For a $10 million design contract that might take two years and employ 20 people, there’s a profit of about $600,000.
“Half the time I spent talking to these people. The way I dealt with them was if I knew they were good, I’d say, ‘Talk to one of my professionals and he’ll plug you in. If you start talking about class-X concrete, I won’t know what the hell you’re talking about.’ I’d tell my secretary Chris to buzz me and not let me hang in there with some guy because he’s a talker. Road contractors are a different breed than the lobbyists for consulting engineers. Most all know you and want to know you and want to meet you, but they don’t drive you nuts like the lobbyists. The big road-building contracts are strictly bid. You bid out for seven different parts of the I-355 extension and take the low bid.”
I asked about the General Assembly’s 1993 authorization of ISTHA’s multibillion-dollar plan for 75 miles of new toll roads. In 1994 I’d written in Illinois Issues magazine that the deal passed in part because Chicago’s public schools needed a quick fix–suburban Republicans had added $80 million to the state budget for the Chicago Board of Education.
Hickman said the schools didn’t make that deal. “Pate had it greased,” he recalled. “Being senate majority leader, he controlled appropriations. There was a quid pro quo: IDOT funding for the Eisenhower and Kennedy–the Cook County expressways that give Madigan jobs.”
When interviewed for this story, the spokesman for house speaker Michael Madigan, Steve Brown, could not recall any bargaining before the passage of the tollway’s expansion plan. But six years ago, when I had talked to him for my Illinois Issues story, his memory was clearer. He said toll roads were viewed as a means to provide needed public works at no cost to taxpayers. He also confirmed a story I’d heard about Pate Philip. The state senate president was apparently worried new toll roads through Will County would enhance the Democratic base in Joliet, so he added to the expansion plan a McHenry leg, or “a Republican road.”
Hickman said Pate Philip usually got whatever he wanted. “Art Philip would always tell board members and senior staff not to worry about Springfield,” Hickman said. “He’d say the legislation is all handled. ‘It’s all ironed out.’ Art talked to his brother all the time, like Billy Carter used to do. So inside the tollway we called Art ‘Billy Philip.'”
Since our last lengthy conversation four years earlier, I’d made a shift in my own career. No longer strictly a freelance journalist, I was working under contract for the Chicago-based nonprofit Environmental Law and Policy Center, organizing the South Corridor Against the Tollway (now known as Lincolnway SCAT). SCAT is a group of residents from southwest Cook County and northwest Will County who are living in the vicinity of the proposed I-355 extension. This toll road would lead to Peotone, where south suburban Republicans (and Democratic congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.) hoped to build a new regional airport. SCAT was the plaintiff in yet another court case involving ISTHA. Its lawyers had gone to federal court contending that the environmental impact statement prepared by Illinois road builders for the first leg of the I-355 extension failed to properly evaluate the “no-build analysis”–in other words, before spending $750 million on a public works project, the government has to demonstrate the need. District Court judge Suzanne Conlon agreed and ordered ISTHA and IDOT back to the drawing board.
“The environmental regulations at issue in this case are designed to ensure that the public and government agencies are well-informed about the consequences of proposed actions,” Conlon wrote. She ordered that a new study be undertaken with proper consideration given to the idea that motorists’ needs might be better accommodated without the expense of a big tollway.
“With tollway put on hold, time for clearer thinking” was the headline of a Crain’s Chicago Business editorial that asked if roads, rather than investing in public transit, is “the best way to handle the region’s transportation needs.” Crain’s also suggested ISTHA was “overstepping its financial mission” because users of the Will County road would generate a mere 11 percent of the cost for extending I-355 between I-55 and I-80. ISTHA and IDOT responded by appealing Judge Conlon’s ruling. A year later they lost their appeal and are now developing a new environmental impact statement, still hoping to break ground in the spring of 2001.
When I’d struck up my conversation with Hickman in November 1997, SCAT was trying to build support for alternatives to new toll roads, believing money would be better spent on improving existing state and county arterial roads. In its public awareness campaign, SCAT often argued that tollway projects were driven by politics more than by any genuine transportation need. The public was aware of the Hickman trial, and SCAT members saw the case as an opportunity to expose the pervasive climate of cronyism at ISTHA.
I had made this point as emphatically as anyone, yet I also pointed out that Hickman was the tollway’s last voice for fiscal discipline. In 1991, shortly after taking the top job at ISTHA, he told Bond Buyer that new toll roads must be “self-sustaining,” meaning they have to generate enough revenue to support themselves.
Six years later, Hickman remained convinced. “When we looked at I-355, [finance director] Nick Jannite would talk to the finance committee, which included Pate’s people–Art Philip and Jack Garrow. We’d say, guys, you can’t have that extension without raising tolls 15 to 20 cents throughout the entire system. Tolls would have to be 60 to 65 cents to subsidize construction. That thing would eat up the tollway’s money. How are you going to pay for it? You can’t use bond reserve money. When Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s came in to rate us for the bond refinancing, it was Garrow, me, and Art, the rating committee. Garrow would deny it, but he guaranteed them that the board would raise the tolls to build new roads.” (Garrow declined to respond, saying, “I really don’t care to comment on anything that Bob Hickman said.”)
I asked why new toll-road proposals enjoy such avid support from local politicians.
“Jobs for their precinct people,” Hickman said. “Tollbooth collectors, maintenance, all of that.”
What about landownership?
“I don’t know who owns or doesn’t own land. But I’m sure that some of these politicians or their friends own some land around interchanges.”
ISTHA headquarters was built close to the I-355 interchange with Ogden. It sits on land that was worth $5,466,000 when the agency bought the real estate in the late 80s. The 21.27-acre parcel consisted of 17 zoned lots, many of which were already occupied by homes and businesses. About 20 percent of the lots were owned by William Alter, a Republican fund-raiser and real estate developer with an “uncanny ability for knowing where major tollways were going to be built,” according to the Tribune’s John McCarron.
McCarron noted that in the early 80s–when I-355 was still in the planning stages–Alter made some “bold and visionary investments” near what would become the Ogden and Army Trail interchanges. Certainly the presence of the ISTHA headquarters on Ogden improved the value of Alter’s holdings on the east side of Authority Drive. Today he’s developing two upscale office buildings along this open stretch, which is described in marketing materials as the very “epicenter of Du Page County.”
Other property owners in the area weren’t so lucky. The tollway had played hardball with about 300 landowners in the way of the first 12-mile-long leg of I-355. People received registered letters with intimidating language about the state’s quick-take powers, and they were offered pitifully low sums of money. Many caved quickly to avoid condemnation proceedings. Eminent domain is a highly specialized field practiced by only a handful of lawyers, and those residents who sought legal representation sometimes felt their own lawyers were beholden to ISTHA. The agency hires eminent domain lawyers, and, according to Hickman, they can “make $30,000 to $50,000 to delay a case” long enough that an owner will settle.
Hickman said he inherited a mess. His predecessor, Thomas Morsch, was barely 30 years old when he was appointed to replace Gayle Franzen as ISTHA executive director in 1985. Like Franzen, Morsch had previously headed the Citizens for Thompson campaign. Franzen had arranged to borrow millions to pay for the original I-355 tollway through Du Page County, but ISTHA officials didn’t plan ahead–there was no staff to handle land condemnations. When Hickman took over, he was surprised to learn his secretary was being paid overtime to tell people to move off their land. He blamed delays on the agency’s practice of offering low prices. “The attitude was ‘We’re the government so fuck ’em,’ because the state had already acquired title to the land through its quick-take powers,” Hickman said. “But they had to go on some people’s property and start building I-355 before there was a settlement.”
Under Hickman’s watch, the widening of the Tri-State involved condemnations of 400 properties. “I’d tell [head of ISTHA real estate] Ben Swislow to settle in between,” Hickman said. “If Ben came back to me and said they wanted $280,000, with court costs at about $38,000, my offer would be 239 or 241.”
On the steps outside the Du Page County courthouse, Hickman lit a cigarette, and I asked about another tollway land deal that had been under investigation. This one involved a tract that was in the path of the proposed I-355 extension. Hickman knew a little bit about it, mainly, he said, because the Will County state’s attorney’s office had taken his deposition. “I said I didn’t know anything about this Hedg deal,” Hickman said. “They wanted to give me a lie detector test, but I wouldn’t.”
Through my organizing work, I’d become acquainted with the so-called Hedg deal. Donald Hedg is a developer who owned a 27-acre parcel in unincorporated Will County that was sought by the Illinois Department of Transportation through a condemnation suit in 1991. IDOT appraised the property at $662,600, Hedg contested, and litigation dragged on. Two years later, in September 1993–right after the General Assembly approved the tollway’s expansion plan–IDOT and ISTHA were reaching an agreement for IDOT to complete all condemnation suits on the I-355 project. Hedg then called on Bolingbrook mayor Roger Claar, who was a member of the tollway board.
A college fraternity brother of Jim Edgar at Eastern Illinois University, Claar had become a cash magnet after his appointment to the tollway board in 1991. In 1990 Claar’s campaign fund had raised just $683, but a year later it collected $54,710. Now the fund typically receives more than $100,000 a year.
Claar claimed the size of his war chest had little to do with his clout at the tollway. “Critics can say, ‘Oh, they got something for it,’ but that’s a crock,” Claar told National Public Radio reporter Rick Karr in August 1997. He claimed people contribute only because they’re his friends.
Hedg had given nothing to Claar’s campaign fund until Claar was appointed to the ISTHA board. Then through June 1997, Hedg contributed $4,250. Not much, yet when all was said and done, ISTHA, not IDOT, purchased Hedg’s land–and not for the original $662,600 appraisal, but for $1.25 million.
Will County state’s attorney James Glasgow, an ambitious Democrat, launched an investigation into the Hedg deal. Most observers speculated he was after Claar. The Bolingbrook mayor leads a political machine in northwest Will County that generates a massive turnout each election day. According to the state police petition for a search warrant of Claar’s home, Hedg talked about the land purchase with several subcontractors, one of whom told police the developer was bragging “he had found somebody to solve his problems and make it very profitable for him.” That somebody was identified as “an attorney, or somebody with grind at the Tollway.” The subcontractor told police Hedg said “it was very expensive, but it was very quick and made me a rich man.” (Attempts to reach Hedg for this article were unsuccessful; Claar did not return phone calls.)
Once under indictment and awaiting trial, Hickman became a target of the Hedg investigation. The assistant state’s attorneys weren’t buying his claims of innocence. After all, testimony from the police investigation appeared to single him out. ISTHA deputy counsel Robert Douglas was “responsible for preparing and processing the settlement document for IDOT’s condemnation suit” on Hedg’s land, according to the police report. Douglas claimed his boss, tollway general counsel Frank Howard, pressured him to switch the matter over from IDOT to ISTHA. In the same report, Douglas told police, “Howard wanted the settlement finalized prior to May 1, 1994 (the effective date of Hickman’s resignation), since Hickman had been given authority to settle the Hedg case without Board approval.” (Neither Douglas nor Howard returned phone calls for this article.)
Standing outside in the cold, my hands were turning numb. Hickman said the state police were still after him about Hedg, “but I don’t know him to this day.”
Five months later the Illinois Supreme Court would dismiss Glasgow’s case and Claar would go on the offensive, telling reporters, “There are real criminals out there…that Glasgow is ignoring while chasing Republican politicians like me.”
But back in November 1997, Hickman was worried he’d become the fall guy. We walked across the street to a parking garage and shook hands next to his black Camaro. I promised to mail him the paperwork I’d collected on the Hedg sale.
When I got home, I pulled out my file on Roger Claar. Thumbing through the papers, I noticed a puzzling trail that started in 1990, one year before IDOT filed its condemnation suit on the Hedg property. I had a letter to Pate Philip, dated September 7, 1990, from a Downers Grove attorney named Clifford Carney, asking how “our mutual friend Don Hedg” could get information about IDOT’s plans in the vicinity of his property. A week later Philip fired off a note to James C. Slifer, the district engineer in IDOT’s Schaumburg office. “Dear Jim,” the note began. “Attached please find [a] letter from my good friend, Clifford Carney, regarding a piece of property in Will County….Anything you can do to [sic] regarding his request would be appreciated.” The note was signed “Pate.”
Hickman received my papers on the same day I happened to call. He mentioned he had some papers of his own he wanted to show me–documents involving the trial as well as others he’d collected from his days as the tollway’s executive director. I suggested he mail them to me. He said no–he would be coming up to Chicago in a couple weeks and would deliver them by hand. He didn’t want to spend the money to make duplicates or to take a chance they’d get lost in the mail. These documents, after all, were his only copies.
At noon on Sunday, December 14, 1997, Hickman emerged from between two baggage-claim carousels at O’Hare Airport. The silver-haired convicted felon ambled toward me in a zippered black leather jacket, an old pair of loose-fitting blue jeans, and a gray pullover sweater. He was cradling a brown paper grocery bag in his left arm. He’d come from Springfield to pick up a friend and offered to meet me anywhere I wanted. Having a cup of coffee in an oasis above the Tri-State seemed appropriate but ultimately proved impractical. So there we were, a half hour before his friend’s flight was scheduled to land, just a couple of faces in a crowd retrieving luggage.
We sat down in a bank of chairs, and he pulled out a four-inch stack of papers from inside the tattered Eagle Country Market bag. His breath smelled of cigarettes and coffee as he quietly described the contents. There were the court transcripts, copies of affidavits, and subpoenas. Then there were his tollway files, which he’d collected to help prove why he believed he’d been forced out of his job.
He’d used a granddaughter’s Garfield Post-it notes to separate the records. Several of these yellow squares–illustrated with a sleepy cat asking “Are we having fun yet?”–cited “Pate’s involvement.” Others read “Garrow’s involvement.”
Both Philip and Garrow were pure products of Du Page County. They grew up in Elmhurst and graduated from York High School in the mid-1940s. In the late 50s Garrow moved to Wheaton, and a decade later became a Republican committeeman. He chaired every Du Page gubernatorial fund-raising committee since Jim Thompson’s first run for governor in 1976. One political insider referred to him as “Pate’s water boy.”
I had interviewed Garrow at tollway headquarters in the summer of 1994, just months after Hickman’s departure. He struck me as a feeble old man, a jittery chain-smoker who didn’t seem up to the task of leading ISTHA into an era of unprecedented turmoil. “We’re like the Sunday morning drunk,” he confided. “We have to pay for our past sins, but we’ll come out of this OK as long as we don’t do anything stupid.”
Hickman gave me a copy of a complaint against Garrow he’d anonymously filed with the Illinois state police. Copies had also been sent to the Illinois Board of Ethics and several media outlets. Investigators ended up interrogating Garrow, but concluded they could not support the 11 allegations. Surely the news media should have gotten more mileage out this material, especially given that the last straw forcing Hickman out of the tollway had been awarding contracts to his son.
In the state police report, allegation number one complained that Garrow’s son Paul was married to the daughter of Clair Christian, a principal with Christian-Roge and Associates Inc., which was then doing millions of dollars in tollway business. Jack Garrow told police the engineering firm’s relationship to ISTHA dated back to 1970 and, apart from chairing meetings where contracts were approved, he was not involved in “the engineering firm selection process at the Authority.” Hickman counters that Garrow voted on and signed every contract: “If that’s not official action, what is?”
Allegation two said Paul Garrow was making nearly $50,000 a year as a computer analyst for the tollway. Jack Garrow told police his son had been working at ISTHA for two years prior to his appointment to the board in 1983. “Mr. Garrow has never been called upon to take any official responsibility with respect to his son’s employment, benefits, promotions or discipline,” the police report said. “The official responsibility for any of the above would be generated through a Department Head to the Executive Director who has the official responsibility.” Hickman, the former executive director, offered a different version of events: He claimed Paul Garrow worked as a summer temp in 1981 and 1983, was hired as a senior systems analyst in 1984, left his job in 1985, and was rehired in 1992. Hickman alleged that during his seven-year absence Paul Garrow worked for a company that was awarded more than $3 million in tollway contracts. (Paul Garrow, who no longer works at ISTHA, did not return phone calls; Jack Garrow once again declined to comment on Hickman’s allegations.)
Jack Garrow never mentioned his potential for conflict of interest when these contracts were voted on, Hickman said. Yet according to Hickman’s files, he had taken precautions to avoid a more serious allegation.
On March 19, 1992, Garrow wrote to ISTHA chief counsel Frank Howard: “Would you please send me a memo, and keep a copy for your files, regarding the fact that we have opened a new account at LaSalle National Bank to make payouts for the widening of the Tri-State? As you know, I am a Director of the LaSalle Bank of Lisle which is owned by LaSalle Community Bank Corporation, which is owned by LaSalle National Bank. I feel, per our conversations, that there is enough separation not to present a conflict of interest….I am not an officer, director or stockholder in LaSalle National or LaSalle Community Bank Corporation. Directors at LaSalle Bank of Lisle are paid a monthly fee and this fee does not change based on any deposits the Authority or any other company might make with any of the LaSalle entities. You assured me there was no conflict and since the State Treasurer named LaSalle National Bank as the official depository, I feel more comfortable. However, for the protection of the Authority, LaSalle, and myself, I would appreciate a memo for file stating my disclosure and your legal opinion.”
Nothing wrong with that. More than a year later, however, Garrow received a curious letter from John J. Lynch Jr., the president and chief executive officer of LaSalle Northwest National Bank. On November 23, 1993, Lynch wrote the ISTHA chairman and bank subsidiary director to congratulate him on the tollway’s recent road-building authorization, to request that tollway banking business, and to praise Garrow “on the way that the tollway is being run.”
Several days later, on December 1, Garrow sent the banker’s letter along with a memo to ISTHA’s finance director, Nick Jannite. “When we go back to the Treasurer’s Office with a request to divide the 40 million the Treasurer has approved for Cole Taylor Banks, please make a pitch to include Northwest National as one of the 3 or 4 depositories,” Garrow wrote. “Please keep me posted and thanks for your help.”
Allegation five of Hickman’s complaint stated, “Garrow currently holds a position on the Board of Directors of LaSalle National Bank which has over $10,000,000.00 of Tollway money deposited in it. ALSO LaSalle National Bank was a co-senior manager on the last two Tollway Bond deals. Garrow has had two bank Board of Director Meetings held in the Tollway’s administration building using tollway funds for their refreshments.”
Garrow told police he was “not a director of LaSalle National nor does he have stock in the bank. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Lisle which was sold to LaSalle National Corporation and changed its name to the LaSalle Bank of Lisle in 1986. He ceased to be a board member in December of 1993. The LaSalle Bank of Lisle has never done any business with the Tollway.” Regarding the bank’s use of the boardroom at One Authority Drive: There were two meetings while the bank was being remodeled. Coffee was served.
Allegation ten claimed, “Garrow will not let the employment office of the Tollway hire anyone in Du Page County, unless they come through the Republican organization headed by Pate Philip and Garrow.” Investigators were satisfied with Garrow’s reply: “The Authority has a policy of hiring the best qualified personnel without regard for their race, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs.”
At O’Hare, Hickman gave me a stack of ISTHA documents that did indeed suggest the tollway was an employment center for friends of the Du Page County Republican Central Committee. Many of the papers–letters, memos, and lists of dozens of people with the dates they were hired and the names of their sponsors–were copies of faxes sent to tollway personnel. The line giving the time and date at the top of these faxes indicated the documents came from “Du Page Republican.”
In a letter dated June 14, 1994, county GOP executive director Joan M. Salvato saw fit to write directly to Pate Philip, reminding him that one prospective tollway employee and her husband worked five Naperville Township precincts. The letter cc’d Garrow.
In a memo of January 26, 1994, Pate Philip wrote to Garrow, enclosing “a letter from my good friend, Art Gloss, who used to be a Republican Precinct Committeeman in York Township. Can you help his son become a full time employee with the Tollway?” At Hickman’s trial Garrow testified he had no time to read contracts, but on three occasions in 1992 he took the time to talk about jobs at the tollway with former governor Jim Thompson’s nephew Michael. There were apparently no openings, but in his “Dear Jim” letter Garrow assured Thompson the application “will not be buried and forgotten.”
This correspondence was almost comical, because Garrow and Pate Philip had demanded a meeting with Jim Edgar in August 1991 to complain about Hickman’s hiring practices. “ALL jobs now go through Hickman instead of Personnel,” Garrow wrote in a memo recounting this meeting for his own files. (This same memo, included in Hickman’s papers, also condemned the executive director for awarding contracts to his son’s employer–a full three years before that news supposedly forced Hickman’s resignation.)
Hickman claimed these papers were “one millionth” of what was at the tollway’s personnel office. I passed copies along to the Citizen Advocacy Center, a government watchdog group based in Pate Philip’s northeast Du Page County district. Staffers there filed a request through the Freedom of Information Act to obtain all correspondence between Pate Philip’s office and the tollway personnel department. The tollway responded first, claiming it knew of no such documents. Then Philip’s top aide, Carter Hendren, wrote back complaining the request was “extremely vague, ambiguous and so broad as to render compliance virtually impossible.” Citizen Advocacy Center lawyer Myrrha Guzman persisted and received a reply from Pate Philip himself. He told her to take it to a judge. “Members of public bodies are not, themselves, public bodies,” wrote the normally plain-speaking pol. “The General Assembly is a ‘public body’ for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act. Its individual members are not.” His correspondence with the tollway, then, could not be considered “public records.” Philip added, “Disclosure of communications between constituents of elected officials and their representatives is both beyond the intent of the Freedom of Information Act [and] inimical to the public interest. Such disclosure raises serious public policy and constitutional concerns.” Later, Hickman said, his friends at the tollway discovered these documents were missing from personnel files.
Hickman contends, “On election day, there would always be 80 people in the maintenance department wanting to take the day off. Garrow was always getting involved in personnel matters. He’d say promote somebody to foreman because he’s ‘a good Republican.’ I’d say no. ‘Fuck no, put in whoever is qualified.’ He’d say, ‘Oh no, Pate’s going to kill me.’ Then he’d run to Pate.”
Du Page Republicans hardly had a lock on tollway jobs as Democratic clout in Springfield pushed some patronage toward city politicians. But house speaker Michael Madigan “always stood tall with me,” Hickman says. “One time I called to say that I’d hired some guy who his people recommended but that he wasn’t worth a shit. Before I could say anything else, [Madigan] said, ‘Cut him.’ There were some lazy Chicago aldermen and committeemen who would call and say, ‘Have anything that pays $30,000 to $40,000 where you don’t have to work?’ I said that if I did, then I’d take it.
“Pate knew that I was close to Edgar and he didn’t want us to have the power. He resented not having his boy Garrow out there pulling the strings.”
Later that night I emptied the contents of Hickman’s crumpled grocery bag onto my living room floor. The room suddenly reeked of stale cigarette smoke–a foul odor that was at least identifiable. The stench emanating from the tollway was so pervasive it was impossible to pin down to a single source.
Six days after picking up the stinking papers from the floor, I called Hickman at home. In recent months, he’d been working in a friend’s carpentry shop in Springfield. His handyman skills, learned long ago from his grandfather, helped to keep his mind off his endless legal battles. He’d declared bankruptcy but still had his house. The salary of his live-in girlfriend, an executive secretary in the Illinois Department of Revenue, paid the bills. The maverick wheeler-dealer and former confidant of the governor was now spending time doing chores around the house.
It was the Saturday before Christmas 1997. Hickman picked up the phone in his kitchen, where he was making fudge for a holiday party. I told him my theory of the circumstances that accounted for his downfall. Upon taking over ISTHA in 1991, Hickman quickly irritated Du Page County Republicans, obstructing their jobs pipeline by hiring his own people and giving contracts to outsiders like Kotlarz’s clients. Even so, he was merely a nuisance–that is, until the tollway’s expansion plan made it through the General Assembly. With major-league booty on the table, Hickman became a larger problem.
Hickman agreed: “They were afraid of me. They didn’t push me or threaten me.”
“But you were deluded,” I said. “You took the job thinking you were actually in charge.”
“You’re right,” he responded without a pause. “It’s hard to swallow, but it’s true. Pate or Garrow would go around me to the governor. So they’d still get done what they wanted done. One of my best friends told me the day I walked into the tollway I should have fired everybody–all the senior management, all the senior staff–and started over with people I could trust. Five months after I became executive director, Pate got Jim Edgar to appoint Garrow as chairman. After a while I realized this is Pate’s deal–it’s Pate’s tollway.”
On January 8, 1998, Hickman took a room at the Hyatt on Wacker. The tab was picked up by a friend from Springfield, who was staying in the next room. Hickman was waiting for a call from his doctor–he wanted the doctor to sign a letter saying the clogged artery made him unfit to go to jail. That night he was going out to dinner at Gibson’s with a couple of buddies, including state legislator Angelo “Skip” Saviano. Hickman planned to have a steak and a couple of vodkas and ice with a lime twist. It could be his last night out with the boys for a long time. The next morning he had to return to court. Judge Mehling might rule that his jail sentence begin immediately.
Outside the 28th floor window, the sky appeared to be falling. As a dreary winter day turned to dusk, fog rolled in off Lake Michigan, swallowing the sweeping view of skyscrapers along Michigan Avenue. Hickman sat with his back to the window, smoking Marlboro Lights and sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup. He wore a dark gray sweater, gray slacks, and well-polished black loafers. He was playing a game of woulda, coulda, shoulda. Maybe he should have smelled a setup, pleaded guilty, and saved himself $200,000 in legal fees. To hold down costs, he’d decided to be tried with Kotlarz, a tactical decision that he now said backfired. He should have had a separate trial so as not to associate himself so closely with the other defendant.
Hickman claimed his first lawyer, William Conlon, talked him out of a jury trial, figuring that persuading a judge would be easier than convincing a Du Page County jury. But Hickman now thought the prosecution would have had a hard time finding 12 people who’d agree that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Still, would the facts have been the deciding factor? The newspapers had printed dozens of stories about Hickman’s alleged gambling losses and his supposed favoritism toward his son’s employer. A jury trial would have accentuated these peccadilloes and turned the proceedings into a sideshow–a long, drawn-out, expensive affair. How open-minded could a jury have been toward a gambler accused of ripping off a quarter of a million dollars from the tollway? How charitable would you be if you were paid $10 to show up in court after forking over 80 cents in tolls?
Instead of taking his chances with hostile toll payers, Hickman left his fate in the hands of a judge who was carrying baggage of his own. In November 1995, one and a half years before Hickman’s case, Ronald Mehling presided over the third trial of Rolando Cruz, who’d spent years on death row for allegedly murdering a young Naperville girl. Mehling freed Cruz in a ruling “that strongly suggested the investigation was corrupt, an allegation that led to a grand jury probe,” the Tribune noted in one of its many stories. The grand jury then indicted three former prosecutors and four sheriff’s officers in December 1996, and Mehling was viewed as either a hero or a bum, depending on whom you asked. This embarrassing chapter in Du Page County history was just beginning as Hickman and Kotlarz were waiving their right to a jury trial, leaving their fate in the hands of the diminutive, soft-spoken Mehling.
William Conlon was a Cook County guy. He had seen no percentage in Hickman taking the stand. Not one witness testified that Hickman had anything to do with preparing the contract for the land sale. Not even the prosecutor suggested he’d received any money in a deal that gave ISTHA $2 million more than it thought it should get. Hickman says, “I think Mehling’s mind was made up before the trial even started.”
State’s attorney Neal Thompson scoffs at his assertion. “I don’t believe for an instant that the judge thought, ‘I better give this one to the state or I’m in trouble.’ This was a no-brainer, looking at the evidence going in during trial. The whole thing reeked of fraud. There was no evidence of a quid pro quo, but we proved the pattern of corruption at the tollway. Kotlarz got contractor deals because Bob Hickman was selling his political office. The defense’s claim that Waste Management knew what was going on is ridiculous. I argued in court, if I’m going to give my colleague $5,000 from my bank account, why would I give him a gun and tell him to go rob the bank instead of just writing the check? If Waste Management wanted Joe Kotlarz to get that commission, why didn’t they just give it to him? Why would they be so stupid as to work hard at making something illegal?”
A good question. Hickman only knew that Waste Management’s representative agreed to the deal. “Kotlarz’s invoices, which Berres approved, made a number of references to talking to Eagle Realty,” he says. (Berres did not return phone calls for this article.)
To handle his appeal, Hickman chose a lawyer from Du Page County. Jack Donahue was a past president of the Du Page County Bar Association. “Donahue said my mistake was to not hire a Du Page attorney in the first place.” At one time Conlon had tried to get the trial transferred downstate to Sangamon County. “My trial happened in Du Page County because that’s where the land was.”
In a document prepared for Donahue, Hickman outlined what he would have said on the stand. Kotlarz, he wrote, had already promised to sign an affidavit saying Hickman had no knowledge of his involvement in the commission. (Kotlarz could not be reached for this story; his former attorney, David Stetler, declined to comment.)
Hickman had always maintained he’d mentioned the broker’s fee in his July 17, 1991, letter to Waste Management in order to protect ISTHA from another problem. When he became executive director, two real estate companies were each claiming to be the sole broker in the sale of the former tollway headquarters in Oak Brook. Hickman said he wrote to both parties, saying ISTHA was not responsible for any commission, instructing them to work out their disagreement with the buyer. So a year later, when Kotlarz informed him that Waste Management’s purchase involved a broker, Hickman said the broker had nothing to do with the tollway–it was Waste Management’s deal. In a sworn affidavit, ISTHA operations chief Richard W. DeRobertis backed up Hickman’s version of events, stating that since the Oak Brook sale this had become standard policy: “Mr. Hickman did not wish to engage in broker disputes in any future dealings with the Tollway.”
Both the purchase price and commission were discussed at tollway meetings. According to records retained by Hickman, they were first brought up at a senior staff meeting attended by five department heads, the chief legal counsel, and chairman Garrow. The second time was at an April 23, 1992, operations meeting attended by Garrow and a majority of board members. The third was a week later during an executive session at which Garrow was present. The fourth was at a regular board meeting attended by Garrow and all of the directors. And a month later, on May 30, 1992, the full board approved the sale of the land to Waste Management. In his affidavit, DeRobertis recalled “the commission was openly discussed,” “the discussion was significant,” and “a number of questions were asked by Directors Daniel Fusco and Arthur Philip.”
So why could only Fusco remember these discussions in court? DeRobertis had been subpoenaed by both the state and William Conlon, but to his surprise he was never called as a witness. In his affidavit, DeRobertis wrote, “I was willing to testify and felt that I could possibly assist Mr. Hickman in his defense.”
Conlon told me he didn’t call DeRobertis as a witness because his testimony was unnecessary. “I didn’t think the government had proved its case on any of the central issues,” explained Conlon, a former U.S. attorney.
Hickman claimed the prosecution’s most important witnesses were politically aligned. As secretary of the Du Page County Republican Central Committee, Garrow had his name listed just after that of chairman Pate Philip on the party’s letterhead. The party’s nine-member “executive committee” started with Wayne Township chairman (and ISTHA deputy counsel) Robert Douglas.
Douglas testified he had first heard about the broker’s commission from ISTHA attorney Paul Olszewski in August 1993, just weeks after the General Assembly approved the plan to expand I-355. Olszewski said he had paid no attention to the commission while overseeing the land sale, because it didn’t involve ISTHA–the buyer intended to make the payment to a third party.
In September 1993, the Tribune published a front-page story about Hickman and several other “Edgar pals” who owned stock in a pharmaceutical company that had just landed a lucrative contract from the state. According to Hickman, soon after that story appeared he was invited to lunch by a prominent lobbyist who advised him to resign, warning of more trouble ahead. Hickman refused.
In criminal court, Douglas testified that one month later, in October 1993, he brought up the commission in the 17-month-old Waste Management sale to ISTHA board chairman Jack Garrow. Garrow testified he had then raised the subject with fellow board member Arthur Philip. Two months later, in late December, Garrow met with the Illinois state police. Another three months passed, Edgar won the GOP primary in his bid for reelection, and Hickman announced his plans to resign.
During the trial, the prosecution argued that Douglas was almost fired after state police were given the tollway’s records on the Waste Management deal. Garrow testified, “Mr. Hickman told me the chief of legal, Frank Howard, felt that Rob Douglas was saying things detrimental to him personally in the department, and that he was a leaker.” Hickman claims Douglas was working for the Du Page Republican Party. “He’d always spend seven or eight hours a day in Garrow’s office.” When Frank Howard moved to have Douglas dismissed, Hickman says, “Garrow told me, ‘You can’t do that. Pate’s going to kill me.'” In a July 1, 1994, letter to Howard (cc’d to Garrow), Douglas acknowledged his imminent termination by Roland Burris, but he had no intention of leaving ISTHA: “Consider this my resignation of the title special assistant attorney general. This action, however, is in no way to be construed as a resignation of my employ with the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.” Douglas had already been reassigned to the engineering department. By 1995, during my days organizing tollway foes, he was in charge of land condemnations, running people off their property so ISTHA could follow through on orders to build that toll road to Peotone.
Five cigarette butts were in the ashtray when the phone rang. Hickman stood up and leaned against the wall as he listened to the woman on the other end–it was his doctor’s receptionist. Hickman rubbed his hand through his white hair. No, the doctor wasn’t going to say his clogged artery justified his staying out of jail. Hickman wasn’t about to beg. Cigarette butt number six was in the ashtray when the phone rang again–it was Donahue. Hickman told him the news. They agreed to meet early the next morning.
Walking me to the door, Hickman mentioned a TV show he’d seen recently about a crooked judge screwing over some hapless person. “Now I can imagine what it’s like to be black and wrongly tried,” he said. “Thank God I’m not up for anything serious. If I were up for murder, I’d be on the electric chair.”
Three months later, Hickman was released from the Du Page County Jail. We discussed his experience over the telephone. He had managed to get out on a loading dock twice to see sunlight and breathe fresh air. The rest of the time he was confined indoors, wishing he could have a cigarette.
“Jail’s no country club. The lights are always on, and you never know what time it is unless you can sneak a peek at the clock in the guards’ area. I was never a good sleeper. The screaming, the noise, and the slamming doors was a game to the guards.
“It was strictly kid stuff. There are some good guards, but the majority act like children, hollering all the time and always trying to intimidate you. They say, ‘Call me officer.’ These wannabe cops are fat, obnoxious fucking assholes carrying their little cans of mace. Their average IQ is about 20. I was thinking they were in jail for life because they couldn’t get a job on the outside.
“I worked hard. I wasn’t going to lie in a cell 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The guards get you up at 4:30 AM. From 5:30 till 4:30 I would work, usually scrubbing and waxing floors. Four days a week I worked in the commissary, delivering potato chips, toothpaste, and things like that to different cells. People had commissary accounts. You pay three dollars a week for a toothbrush, soap, and two envelopes. Indigents pay ten percent. If somebody sent you a money order, you could buy shorts from the commissary to wear in the cell or for gym.
“I’d go to the gym four days a week at 8:30 PM. There was a weight room, basketball and volleyball, and a lot of amateurs–guys blowing out their knees playing basketball. You showered in the pod [cell block]. The water was warm. There was a tiny sink. Each inmate got a razor a week with your name on it and would have it for one hour per day.
“They really keep track of everything. If we lost an aluminum cup, we had to go through the Dumpster because they were afraid somebody would turn it into a weapon.
“Most inmates wear orange jumpsuits. Kitchen workers wear white. People like me, who worked in the commissary, cleaned floors, and in the laundry, had green pants and white shirt. Sure, it was good to work in the commissary. You were called ‘trustees,’ but there was no honor as trustee.
“One time I told a guard that I was serving time because of Du Page County
politics and Pate Philip. He about flipped. He didn’t want me to mention Pate Philip. The guards were scared to death of him. He was the person who got them their jobs.
“One guard said in front of everybody about me: ‘He’d probably steal from the commissary like he stole from the tollway.’ Guards aren’t supposed to discuss inmates’ cases.”
Another guard told Hickman if he complained he could get the taunting guard suspended for two months.
“I just put a note on my bed: ‘Keep your fucking mouth shut when you’re in my cell.’ I wasn’t going to let a goofy guard mess me up. If you mouth off to them, they throw you in the hole and you lose your privileges as a trustee. The good thing about being a trustee is just being able to get out each day and work instead of having to be locked up in that pod all the time.
“The guards looked into the pods through glass windows and would come in every 26 minutes. They’d walk to the back and slam a lot of doors. Each guy got a blanket and two sheets. You learn not to complain about heat or cold control because you never get a straight answer. The room was always cold. I slept with clothes on every night in a six-by-ten-foot room. You’d lie there and count the cinder blocks. There was a stool and sink and no place to put clothes. There were five of these rooms on each side of the pod and picnic tables in the day room.
“The inmate population is 80, 90 percent black and Hispanic. There were a lot of guys in for immigration violation, which the county loves because the feds pay for them. The other most common crimes were DUI, drugs, and breaking and entering. Word gets around who people are and what they did. One man was sentenced to 62 years for beating a baby to death with a hammer. He was always real polite. Every day I saw that guy who cut the baby from the woman’s stomach. It’s amazing that they’d put a jerk like that in the same place as kids caught with liquor underage. A lot of people in there were afraid for their lives.
“On my second day, I went to the library to get some stuff on my case. There were a number of empty tables. I set my glasses and papers on one table. Two inmates were standing there, punks who cuffed up their pants. The guy pulled the chair out from under me. I said, ‘Put the chair back or I’ll break it over your head.’
“At three months, I was really an old-timer. My brother and I wrote more letters in three months than in the rest of our lives. We’re not letter-writing, birthday-card-sending people. My brother started me some tomato plants. My daughter sent me a four-leaf clover. A lot of mail came from my grandkids–every other day. They acted like I was on vacation and would ask questions like ‘Have you met any new buddies?’ I wound up with a big box of letters, including many from a secret admirer who’d write these pornographic love notes that were signed Monica, Paula Jones, Donna Rice. It turned out that they came from a woman who used to work at the tollway.
“I didn’t want visitors. People worried about me, so I’d call family and friends collect and keep the conversation light.
“Someone bought me a subscription to the Springfield Journal-Register, but I only got a couple a week. Then I saw one in the sick bay. People had been taking them.
“The food wasn’t worth a damn. One guy couldn’t wait to get to Stateville in Joliet because the food is better there and smoking is allowed. I still haven’t had a cigarette.”
On June 4, 1998, almost six months to the day since our last meeting, I returned to the Hyatt to interview Hickman. The view out the window was almost identical, but this time Michigan Avenue was lit up by sunshine. The room was on a nonsmoking floor.
Hickman opened the door. He was well tanned and smiling, but seemed to stoop ever so slightly. He was visibly relieved to be out of jail. He asked if I’d noticed the meeting of the National Basketball Association going on downstairs. Scouts, coaches, and former NBA stars like Kevin McHale were milling around the lobby. “When I was playing basketball, Wilt really stood out at seven foot two inches,” he recalled. “Not anymore. They’re all so tall.”
His old cockiness was starting to come back. The phone rang. A friend needed help trying to line up business from the state. Hickman was out of that loop–he couldn’t get contracts himself–but he could advise his friend on how to play the game. He rattled off three names of people to call.
Hickman was on the verge of landing a job with a billboard company in Springfield, locating land to put signs on. The first sign would go up on a vacant lot, but the spot he chose turned out to be on top of a gas line. He later chuckled about his dumb luck. He was still looking for a way to complete his 400 hours of community service and would soon undertake a survey of streets around the capital to ensure compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The roads and curbs near the statehouse and city hall were good, but it was almost impossible for a person in a wheelchair to get near the governor’s mansion.
Hickman’s lawyer, Jack Donahue, was confident he’d get another trial. In a 250-page appeal, he claimed his client’s previous attorney had failed to adequately cross-examine “two key witnesses”–Jack Garrow and Arthur Philip. Garrow, for instance, had testified that Gayle Franzen said the “tollway was for sale” under Hickman. “In questioning by the co-defendant’s attorney Mr. Franzen denied having made that accusation,” wrote Donahue. “However, trial counsel for the defendant never pursued that issue in order to cast doubt on the recollection and motives of Mr. Garrow.” Hickman’s previous lawyer, William Conlon, told me he didn’t expect the testimony of Philip and Garrow to carry the day: “They were not believable.” Their statements under oath, he said, created “an extraordinarily negative impression of the tollway board.”
While Hickman was still in the Du Page County Jail, he had seen Franzen touring the commissary with two other members of the county board. “Franzen saw me, but I didn’t talk to him,” Hickman recalled. “I didn’t want to put him on the spot.”
Only several years earlier, Franzen had taught him the intricacies of the bond business, and Hickman had approved two deals that gave millions of dollars to Franzen’s employer–Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, the New York investment banking firm. A year later Franzen launched a campaign for secretary of state, only to quit a week after declaring his candidacy. He also stepped down from his job as chairman of the Du Page County Board. The Sun-Times’s Steve Neal noted that during the preceding three years Franzen’s campaign fund had collected $863,000–a large chunk of that came from recipients of $40 million in no-bid county contracts. Franzen had accepted a job as chief executive at Harry W. Kuhn Inc., a Du Page road-building company. In his comments to the press, Franzen said he was retiring forever from politics and dedicating himself to honest enterprise in the private sector.
Hickman and Franzen had once traveled the same career path. But while Franzen had amassed a fortune feeding from the public trough, Hickman will never get that chance. Their difference, Hickman contends, is that Franzen “kissed Pate’s ass.” He knew he couldn’t get elected in Du Page County “without Pate Philip’s help.”
“I wasn’t part of Pate’s army,” Hickman says. “I didn’t want to be, and I never would be.”
On October 6, 1999, the Illinois Supreme Court denied Hickman’s petition to appeal his conviction. On the same day, however, Kotlarz was granted an opportunity to appeal to the state’s highest court. In an earlier, unpublished order, even the appellate court affirming Kotlarz’s conviction couldn’t identify the victim of his alleged crime, saying he “took $240,000 from the Illinois Tollway Authority and/or Waste Management.”
Kotlarz’s new attorneys are from Jim Thompson’s firm, Winston & Strawn. In their petition, they refer to the closing arguments, contending that prosecutors were offended Waste Management used its “influence, relationships and the power that comes from having large amounts of available money” to acquire a long-coveted piece of land. “Even as they argued for defendant’s conviction, they thundered disapproval at Waste, its conduct, its corporate ethic and its employees. The evidence showed, they insisted, that Waste was involved in the influence peddling activity ‘up to its eyeballs’ and nothing in the evidence of the trial persuades that these assertions are wrong. Those same assertions, however, unambiguously demonstrate the core problem in this case: this case had nothing whatsoever to do with theft by deception. No person or entity was deceived in this case. To the contrary, the key players either knew exactly what was going on, or they were deliberately indifferent to the realities they faced in the real estate deal. As the prosecutor said of Waste Management’s real estate director Roger] Berres ‘he turned a blind eye, he saw what little he wanted to see and let this go on’…
“A trial court has found that Kotlarz stole from a particular victim, but has insisted that restitution be paid, not to the identified victim, but to another entity altogether,” the brief continues, making reference to Mehling’s order that Kotlarz pay the $190,000 he received from the commission not to Waste Management but to the tollway. ISTHA “never paid Kotlarz a penny, it never paid Waste a penny, it never paid Eagle [Realty] a penny. [ISTHA was] the seller and only received money, it did not pay money. The Court’s premise that Kotlarz ‘collected $240,000 that [ISTHA] had not agreed to pay him [because it] would have realized another $240,000 but for the defendant’s unlawful actions’ turns logic on its head. First, if Kotlarz’s conviction can be upheld, surely it must be on the basis of whether he stole money from Waste.”
In a later brief submitted to the Illinois Supreme Court, Hickman’s attorney argued that “fundamental fairness would require that if the Co-Defendant’s Petition for Leave is to be considered by this Honorable Court, the Petitioner should also have the same opportunity. The Petitioner was never alleged to have received a kickback from the Co-Defendant, Kotlarz. Whereas, Kotlarz was alleged to have siphoned off funds. If this Honorable Court were to find deficiencies in the theft-by-deception statute, the validity of Petitioner’s convictions would also be subject to attack.”
The rivalry between Pate Philip and Jim Edgar was well publicized, but few acknowledged its role in the Hickman trial. Philip couldn’t have been pleased when Edgar decided to replace Jack Garrow in 1995. The new ISTHA board chairman was Julian d’Esposito, a partner in the law firm Mayer, Brown and Platt. In a 1997 column titled “Tame that toll road,” the Tribune’s John McCarron described d’Esposito as “a class act brought in by Edgar to clean up the Hickman mess.” A Winnetka resident, this smooth-talking corporate lawyer did a good job of promoting the image of a reformed ISTHA, though not much had changed.
When d’Esposito’s four-year term expired last July, Governor George Ryan named Arthur Philip as the new ISTHA chairman. In 1994 I asked Hickman’s successor as executive director, Ralph Wehner, what contributions Philip had made while on the tollway board. Wehner told me he recommended good books–the latest was a biography of Winston Churchill. Three years later, when Arthur Philip took the stand at the trail of Hickman and Kotlarz, Du Page prosecutor Neal Thompson asked whether he believed the ISTHA board was a rubber stamp. Philip replied, “Well, it might appear that way at times, and I might even have said that. But it is the appearance I was referring to, not the fact that it was a rubber stamp.”
Following his promotion to board chairman, Pate Philip’s younger brother wasted no time in making headlines. In a Tribune story on his appointment, he declared tolls would have to be raised.
The call for a toll increase incensed Ryan, prompting him to announce a plan to stop tolls entirely, but his announcement may have been motivated by other factors. Last summer the governor had managed to close the deal on the largest public works project in state history; the $12 billion plan, called Illinois FIRST (Fund for Infrastructure, Roads, Schools and Transit), was adopted by the legislature for the explicit purpose of fixing the state’s crumbling infrastructure. The last thing Ryan needed was the tollway chairman lobbying for yet another lunge at people’s wallets.
“Ryan wants freeways, not tollways” topped the Tribune on September 9. “It’s a nuisance to go through tollbooths, and I agree with the public,” the governor said. “Drastic changes are needed.” The challenge, he explained, was tearing down tollbooths while still finding the money to maintain those roads without raising the gas tax.
Then in October a consultant’s report to ISTHA bondholders noted the aging tollway system would have to be entirely rebuilt within 20 years–at a cost of nearly $4 billion. This was actually old news: The same consultant had reached the same conclusion before, but without making the big headlines. Art Philip went on Bob Collins’s radio show on WGN and told listeners that toll increases were “inevitable.”
Ryan apparently took this as a challenge, announcing the formation of a management team–a new executive director and three new appointees to the tollway board–to figure out how to hold the line on toll increases and to eventually eliminate toll roads altogether.
According to the Sun-Times, at a mid-October meeting of the operations committee, Arthur Philip remained in good humor when discussing ISTHA’s problems with the governor. “‘He said he’s against the toll increase–that’s very clear,’ Philip said, laughing.”
The new executive director, longtime Ryan aide Tom Cuculich, was expected to unveil a report presenting the governor with what Philip called “the hard choices.”
“It’s very simple,” Philip told the Sun-Times. “The governor picks the one he wants, and it goes to the legislature.” If Ryan chooses to abolish ISTHA, Philip said, “the Illinois legislature will have to vote to put us out of business.”
Ryan may be serious about eliminating the tollways. Perhaps he wants to stop the wasteful duplication of government services by folding ISTHA’s 274 miles of toll roads into IDOT’s 1,890-mile highway system. But it’s difficult to see how ending the present system will be possible, especially because, as the Sun-Times reported, Cuculich and his new management team “made clear that while their mission is to find ways to trim or eliminate the tollbooths, they intend to move forward on projects already under way.” This means either the new regime isn’t listening to Ryan or the governor wants to see ISTHA proceed on its planned 25 percent expansion in the hinterlands. The multibillion-dollar expansion scheme would generate a mountain of debt on top of the $900 million currently owed to bondholders, the last of whom won’t be paid off until 2017.
The press rarely mentions that Arthur Philip is the younger brother of the state senate president, and it has seldom aired the notion that tollway bond debt fuels a powerful political machine. A revealing description of the process was made to me in 1994 by Jack Garrow. Pate Philip’s fund-raiser and fellow member of the Du Page County Republican Central Committee was itching to break ground on the construction of the I-355 extension through Will and Lake counties. ISTHA had projected much greater traffic volume on the northern extension, but it planned to begin construction to the south. Conceding that tollway foes in Lake County were well organized, Garrow said the I-355 expansion would start in less-populated Will County because that was “the path of least resistance.” He sat in a cloud of cigarette smoke in his third-floor office at tollway headquarters, recalling the recent bond deals to build I-355 and to widen the Tri-State. Garrow likened the pending infusion of cash from Wall Street to “starting the dance.”
Garrow’s replacement, bond lawyer Julian d’Esposito, was the first tollway chairman anyone could remember who went out of his way to deal with the public. A tall, dark-haired man with a deep voice and calm manner, d’Esposito went to community meetings and on the airwaves, saying the new ISTHA realized it could never again afford to act as though the agency only cared about 300-foot-wide strips of concrete and asphalt. His cautious, reassuring way never left the impression that there was any connection between new tollways and older forms of political patronage.
I would have liked Arthur Philip to help me separate facts from appearances, but a tollway spokesman said the chairman wouldn’t be available for an interview. Last month, Philip told a reporter from Copley Press that the Hickman years were “a very difficult period,” but “the main point that everybody missed was that we blew the whistle ourselves. I think the tollway should be complimented on cleaning their own house.” Attempts to interview Pate Philip were also unsuccessful.
Jack Garrow was the only Du Page Republican who would return my phone calls. No longer on the tollway board, he never had much to say.
“So you think justice was served in the Hickman trial?” I asked the former ISTHA chairman.
“I have no further comment,” Garrow replied.
The only official response came from ISTHA communications chief Don O’Toole, whose personal experience was admittedly limited. He became an employee of the 46-year-old tollway system two years ago, about halfway between Hickman’s conviction and sentencing. In the early 90s, O’Toole was Waste Management’s communications director, working down the hall from Roger Berres, the lawyer who worked on the company’s purchase of that infamous 12-acre parcel. O’Toole knew why the company had wanted to acquire the land–the tollway’s tract allowed it to build a road connecting several buildings, and 2,500 employees, along Butterfield Road.
O’Toole was working for an industrial consulting firm when a headhunter called to suggest a job with ISTHA. “My first reaction was, no, not the political world,” he recalled. “But then I went to the tollway and met Julian d’Esposito and Ralph Wehner. I was really impressed by Julian. He’s a very thoughtful guy who is able to give consideration to so many different issues like regional planning. And Ralph is a real road guy. I liked them, so I took the job.”
O’Toole called the Hickman era “ancient history,” contending that since the embattled director’s departure in 1994 there was “more of a general openness. We meet more people and respond to our community. For example, people around Deerfield were really upset with backups at the toll plaza there on I-294, so we removed it. And in response to the public, we’ve been putting up sound walls at a cost of $1 million per mile on each side of the highway. We’re very conscious that this is the toll payers’ money, and we spend it judiciously.”
I related my concerns about the inherent flaws in an institution that was built with an eye toward political expediency. Back in the 1950s, the General Assembly approved two separate highway networks–expressways for Cook County, toll roads for the outlying suburbs–creating separate empires for Democrats and Republicans. In the late 1960s, when the I-57 expressway was built, the state never bothered to build an interchange with the Tri-State tollway in south suburban Harvey. The more typical consequence of this gerrymandering has been traffic backups at every junction where a toll road meets an expressway. The worst bottleneck is in western Cook County, where in 1998 gubernatorial candidate Ryan bought billboard space promising to fix the “Hillside Strangler.”
O’Toole believed serving motorists has always been the main goal. When the region’s interstate highway system was created, “the two-car garage was a novelty. Nobody predicted that the dimensions of suburban growth would be as large as they were and nobody could foresee how many people would be buying cars.” He cited figures for 1997: there were 8.8 million cars and trucks in Illinois, a state whose over-20 population is 8.5 million–that’s 1.04 motor vehicles for every person over 20.
Referring to ISTHA’s “core service” area as Du Page, suburban Cook, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties, O’Toole noted the region’s population had soared from 3.6 million in 1970 to 4.9 million in 1998. The Chicago Area Transportation Study, IDOT’s long-range-planning arm, has projected population growth will exceed 20 percent over the next 20 years. “Population figures understate the needs” for road construction, O’Toole said, “because traffic volume is driven by employment and households, both of which are growing faster than population.”
O’Toole denied that more roads have produced more sprawl–road building, he said, hasn’t kept pace. He argued the ballyhooed resurgence in residential growth in the city and some older suburbs has been relatively minor compared to the larger trend of outward expansion. “There’s dynamite business development taking place in tollway corridors, creating great jobs for people like my 27-year-old daughter.”
A longtime resident of west suburban Clarendon Hills, O’Toole said his daughter’s generation can’t afford housing in the towns where they grew up. They have to start their own families in newer, outlying suburbs and then commute to work in places like Oak Brook, Schaumburg, and Hoffman Estates, 1950s-era bedroom communities that have evolved into bustling, semi-autonomous job centers of their own, thanks to their location in tollway corridors.
In 1992, the Northeastern Illinois Regional Planning Commission completed a review of population and employment trends in the six-county area between 1970 and 1990. The cost of ever-expanding suburbanization was becoming evident–much of what passed for growth and development in the previous two decades was actually a shifting of resources from older urban neighborhoods and suburbs to outlying areas. While older areas crumbled from disinvestment, newcomers to outlying areas clamored for sewers, roads, and schools.
The NIPC report recommended that Jim Edgar and the General Assembly enact policies to make the redevelopment of existing communities as attractive as new development on farmland. Today this has become conventional wisdom, as evidenced by the rhetoric surrounding the passage of the Illinois FIRST project and the recent formation of a growth task force in the General Assembly. But in 1993, NIPC’s recommendations for regional growth failed even to generate a legislative hearing.
The 1993 session of the General Assembly marked a changing of the guard. Suburban Republicans, the chief beneficiaries of sprawl, had taken control. Pate Philip, a 26-year veteran of the Illinois legislature, was in his first year as senate president. He knew he was guaranteed at least two years at the top. Within that narrow time frame, NIPC’s proposal to level the regional playing field must have made no sense to him. As a Philip spokesman later told me, the senate president wasn’t interested in “playing God.” Instead, he used his newfound clout to ram through ISTHA’s expansion plans. Several years later, Peter Arendovich, a southwest Cook County resident who didn’t want a toll road running through his backyard, talked to Philip on the phone. Philip quipped the I-355 extension was going to make it quicker for him to drive to Champaign for U. of I. football games.
It’s no wonder ISTHA is fiercely defended by Republican lawmakers representing prosperous and growing suburbs. But the General Assembly does include a handful of tollway reformers. Last year they failed to muster enough votes to force ISTHA to pay for some $40 million in land that the state is prepared to hand over for free when, and if, the agency ever breaks ground for new roads. The proposal sailed through the Illinois house, but was quashed last spring by Pate Philip’s senate rules committee.
The future of ISTHA was the scheduled topic for a November hearing of the Illinois House Appropriations and Public Safety Committee, but that meeting never took place. House speaker Michael Madigan apparently isn’t keen to invade Pate’s turf.
I first called ISTHA’s Don O’Toole in August to verify some information. Hickman said the agency had in its files a bar graph showing land sales had increased substantially under his watch. I asked O’Toole to send me a list of specific activities carried out by the real estate department through the years. A two-page fax described in general terms how the agency inventories and sells land, a process made easier in recent years due to computerized record keeping. According to this fax, ISTHA’s real estate department didn’t exist until 1995, when its then director, veteran highway engineer Ralph Wehner, consolidated various activities in accordance with a management model used by its sister agency, IDOT.
Next, I requested information about the tollway’s sale of surplus property. O’Toole promptly called back to pass along some figures. Data from before 1987 was not readily available, but in the 13 years detailed he was “hard-pressed to see any pattern in the sale of little landlocked pieces.”
I had discerned a pattern. During the four years prior to Hickman’s arrival, ISTHA sold $130,000 in real estate. During the four years Hickman ran ISTHA, the tollway sold property worth $5.6 million. And in the eight years since Hickman hired Ben Swislow to manage the tollway’s landholdings, ISTHA has sold more than $19.5 million in surplus property. Before Hickman, the tollway simply paid for land and sat on it.
O’Toole was unwilling to give Hickman credit. He said the increased sales were “coincidental” because there were several major transactions, including the Waste Management deal and the 1995 sale of the old Oak Brook headquarters to a shopping mall developer for $11.7 million.
I said it was my understanding that ISTHA had no real estate department until Hickman took over. Hickman told me he saw “money lying all over the place” and instructed Swislow to take an inventory of land parcels. O’Toole said he had spoken to Swislow, who told him Hickman didn’t aggressively market the land. “If you want to credit Hickman with putting in a marketing campaign, it was a failure,” O’Toole said, chuckling. “Land sold because there were willing buyers.” But Swislow’s organizing of records must have expedited sales, I replied, adding that these efforts even uncovered instances where the tollway had neglected to collect rent on land it leased to others. Waste Management had tried to buy an unused 12-acre parcel for several years before it enlisted Kotlarz. Under Hickman, the tollway was finally ready to deal.
O’Toole conceded that “Hickman brought Swislow in to help shape things up” and that setting up the real estate department was “one of the good things” he did. But Hickman remained a black mark. “The courts have ruled, and he was found guilty.”
An independent investigation would likely show that Hickman and Kotlarz were conducting normal business at the tollway. Moreover, as courtroom testimony shows, some officials were disturbed by the growing power of Hickman and outsiders like Kotlarz. Gayle Franzen recalled Garrow “expressing concerns about the relationship” between Hickman and Kotlarz. New faces, in particular Cook County Democrats, were making inroads at ISTHA. And with the General Assembly’s authorization of the tollway’s multibillion-dollar expansion plan, the old guard was ready to do something about it. When Hickman stubbornly refused to take a hint, the state police were called in, and Jim Edgar’s boy was sent packing. The Du Page Republicans never suspected they’d be left with damaged goods.
The Waste Management sale “was a dirty deal from day one and everybody knew it,” prosecutor Neal Thompson said during the trial of Hickman and Kotlarz. That’s because cronyism has been accepted since the very first days of ISTHA’s predecessor, the Toll Highway Commission. In his book Clout, Len O’Connor looked at how the initial toll roads affected voting in the 1956 election. Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed a tremendous advantage over native son Adlai Stevenson, in part because, according to O’Connor, Republican governor William Stratton was “well fixed with campaign money by reason of the $431,000,000 toll road he had launched (some of the contractor profits spilling over into the state GOP coffers).”
Three decades later, a new governor gave his chief financier the keys to this gold mine. And when the resulting fight wound up in criminal court, a prosecutor who had spent three years studying a complex land deal concluded the role of the broker was “to act as a conduit to funnel money to Joe Kotlarz.” Hadn’t the tollway always funneled money to the friends of certain politicians?
Once Neal Thompson got a peek inside this can of worms, he was relieved to be done with the case. He alluded often during the trial to a pattern of corruption that didn’t stop with the Waste Management deal. Yet, in a subsequent interview, he said he lacked the evidence to justify an open-ended investigation.
A former U.S. attorney would neither confirm nor deny that his office had ever investigated ISTHA on behalf of the federal government. The thing about slush funds, he told me, is they’re set up by politicians to be within the law. Only the court of public opinion, not a court of law, can change the way an outfit like ISTHA operates.
On December 16, the Citizens Advocacy Center organized their second annual protest at ISTHA headquarters. This time they also marked the 226th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. Seventeen people representing community groups from five counties marched in the parking lot, carrying picket signs and tea cups to draw attention to the fact that motorists must still give money for roads that were paid off long ago. They took special delight surrounding a late model Oldsmobile with the license plate “ART.”
Meanwhile, the ISTHA board was meeting inside the opulent third-floor conference room. Its members were gathered around the table Hickman had managed to have built in-house for one-fourth of the original $80,000 price tag. The nine-person, $535,000-a-year board did little more that day than rubber-stamp ISTHA’s new $355 million budget. At one point, ISTHA chairman Arthur Philip walked over to the window, parted the curtains, and exclaimed with a scowl: “They’re leaning against my car!”
Last August, only weeks after Governor Ryan appointed Philip as ISTHA chairman, Crain’s Chicago Business called for “a wholesale review of where the tollway authority fits into the region’s overall transportation system and a new realization that its finances and growth aspirations are no longer boundless.” In an editorial entitled “For tollway authority, the smooth ride is over,” Crain’s recommended shifting ISTHA’s focus from building new roads to improving its core system–and if new roads were needed, maybe raising tolls wasn’t the best way to pay for them. “If road expansions are needed, is it time to think beyond the traditional tollway model? Should some be funded from general state revenues? Should existing arteries be rebuilt before new ones are constructed? Should tolls from mature sections of the system continue to be used to subsidize extensions that can’t even come close to covering their own costs?”
Those questions need to be answered. But there are others that we can’t afford to ignore. The trial of Hickman and Kotlarz raised more questions than it answered.
If prominent board members–including Arthur Philip–didn’t pay attention to the details of a $4 million real estate deal, then who’s running the tollway? If the various staff members are calling the shots, then to whom are they accountable? Is the system so corrupt that it can’t be saved?
ISTHA spokesman Don O’Toole might have been able to answer these questions, but he no longer has to try. He was replaced last month by Beverly Fawell, a Glen Ellyn Republican who recently retired from the state senate, where she chaired the transportation committee. According to the Sun-Times, Arthur Philip called Fawell “a natural” for the $86,000-a-year job. Like Philip, she hails from a prominent Du Page County political family. Her ex-husband was a judge. Her ex-husband’s brothers are former congressman Harris Fawell and lawyer Tom Fawell, who once tried to arrange that Waste Management deal through Arthur Philip. Her son Scott was Governor Ryan’s chief of staff and now heads the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. When a Sun-Times reporter asked about critics who claim the purpose of the tollway is to provide jobs for Du Page County Republicans, Fawell replied, “Oh, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
She’ll have to convince her former colleagues in the statehouse to defeat three tollway reform bills before the current session. One would prohibit ISTHA from building new roads unless users generate 75 percent of the construction costs (tolls from the planned I-355 extension through Will and Lake counties are projected to cover only 22 percent of construction costs, so the balance will have to be paid by tolls from existing roads). Another proposal would require ISTHA to document toll increases and subsidies needed to finance the I-355 extension. The third bill would require the General Assembly to vote on ISTHA’s budget and any future toll increases.
More substantive reforms have been proposed. One is to incorporate ISTHA into a public agency like IDOT. Another came in a 1997 column by the Tribune’s McCarron: “What’s needed is to put the Toll Highway Authority under an agency that takes a broader view of the Chicago region’s needs…one that knows there’s more to transportation than pouring six-lane ribbons of concrete.” His choice was the Regional Transportation Authority, a six-county agency that’s “already in place and has done a fair and reasonably bi-partisan job of overseeing Metra, Pace and the CTA.”
The Commercial Club of Chicago has taken McCarron’s proposal one step further. The group recently unveiled a long-range plan, Chicago 2020, to assure the region remains “the financial, marketing and insurance center for the powerful agro-industrial complex of the Midwest.” Impediments include the spiraling costs of sprawl and traffic congestion; the widening geographic gap that separates the areas experiencing job growth from the majority of unemployed workers; and the concentration of poverty in isolated pockets, mainly in the city and some of its closest western and southern suburbs. One of the group’s recommendations is to merge ISTHA, the RTA, and northeastern Illinois’ transportation and land-use planning agencies into a single regional authority to oversee allocation and investment in “underlying musculature,” like roads and rails. Combining our two main planning bureaucracies–the Northeastern Illinois Regional Planning Commission and the Chicago Area Transportation Study–with road and transit funding sources makes sense. At least as long as the new agency welcomes citizen involvement. Otherwise, it might become another ISTHA.
As the state’s first governor to be held truly accountable for the actions of ISTHA, George Ryan is in a bind. He says he wants “drastic changes,” yet no one has ever tried to rein in this Du Page County fiefdom. Perhaps last December’s showdown between Ryan and Philip over gun control is only the first shot in a coming battle.
In 1953, lawmakers created the original Toll Highway Commission by giving Governor Stratton the power of eminent domain to condemn private property, the authority to raise money by issuing bonds, and an exemption from civil-service hiring rules. Apparently the General Assembly never gave much thought to the consequences of its actions.
Perhaps the creation of the tollway system wasn’t thought through, but it was certainly calculated, as I discovered four decades later. Back in 1993, as my first meeting with Hickman came to a close at tollway headquarters, I was drawn to a framed photo on the wall of the executive director’s office. Governor Otto Kerner was sitting at a desk, signing the legislation that created ISTHA from the less-powerful Illinois State Toll Highway Commission. The document was also signed by then secretary of state Paul Powell. Both Kerner and Powell would soon be at the center of their own scandals. After leaving office, Kerner would go to jail for profiting on racetrack stock while still governor. Powell would die before it was discovered he had stuffed $800,000 into shoeboxes stored in a Springfield hotel room.
Hickman looked over my shoulder and studied the expressions of two men in suits who were eagerly hanging over Kerner’s shoulders. He pointed a finger at their beaming smiles and chuckled.
“Oh my God,” I exclaimed, “they look like they just bought somebody.”
Hickman broke out laughing, secure in his grasp of Illinois politics.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni/Ginny Lee/Nathan Mandell.