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Tollway chief's move begs question on ethics law
By Marni Pyke and Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

Brian McPartlin


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Published: 9/25/2008 12:06 AM | Updated: 9/26/2008 12:00 AM

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In Gov. Rod Blagojevich's first term, he declared the state's corrupt revolving door "closed."

The Chicago Democrat pushed for and signed a law in 2003 that banned state workers for at least a year from leaving for companies that won taxpayer-funded contracts with their help.

So when Illinois tollway chief Brian McPartlin announced Thursday he is taking a job with a company that did more than $30 million in business with the tollway, good-government groups and some lawmakers said that revolving door may still be spinning.

"In '03 we said this ought to be pretty tight," said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "It's turned out to be more generous than imagined."

McPartlin will leave the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority Oct. 24, after which he plans to start work as vice president of McDonough Associates, an engineering and architectural firm.

The state's ethics laws stipulate state workers can't take a job with a company that won contracts under them. But there is a waiver loophole allowing a worker to apply to the state ethics commission to bypass the law. All the worker has to do is show the commission his or her involvement with that contract wasn't influenced by the possible career move.

To do that, the commission requires the agency's ethics officer to sign off on the move - or explain why he or she won't - and the new employer to say there was nothing untoward with the deal.

Only one of 14 waiver applications has been rejected, according to a review of published commission decisions dating to 2005. Seven of those waiver applications were dismissed because commissioners found the law did not apply to the applicant.

The other six won their waiver.

Among them: Timothy Martin was allowed to become vice president at Consoer, Townsend & Associates, which received nearly $50 million in contracts while he headed the Illinois Department of Transportation.

McPartlin has submitted his application, but it has not yet been approved. The commission is set to meet next on Oct. 20.

Still, even the commission's director, Chad Fornoff, says, "The standard is really quite low. ... It is hard to prove a negative."

The commission doesn't compile its own research or actively investigate the worker's assertions. "There really aren't two parties out there fighting this out," he said.

Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero said the process is fair.

"I don't think it is an automatic done deal," he said. "I'm sure the ethics commission studies the facts before making a decision."

Good-government groups don't blame the commission. They blame the law the commission is bound to follow.

"What is the primary concern here?" said Jay Stewart of the Better Government Association. "Is it to ensure public decisions are going to be made in the public interest or is to ensure postgovernment employment?"

State Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, who sits on the House's tollway oversight committee, said she was surprised to learn McPartlin may be able to work for McDonough Associates.

"I think we are going to have to revisit what appears to be a bit of a loophole," said Mulligan, a Des Plaines Republican.