Illinois senators pressured tollway officials Wednesday to explain details of contracts with the firms that operate and sell products at its oases as well as provide justifications for the system of collecting fines for missed tolls.
The hearing before the Senate Committee on State Government and Veterans Affairs comes as the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority's former oases manager Wilton Partners faces foreclosure proceedings.
Wilton, a politically connected firm and major contributor to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, ran into financial trouble running the oases, where a number of shops now stand empty, and at one point owed the tollway $2.5 million in back rent.
Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat, said she feared the political interference at the authority lingered despite Blagojevich's ouster and the appointment of new tollway board leaders by Gov. Pat Quinn.
As "more information comes out it leads me to believe this is a convoluted web of insider access to contracts and money with very little transparency until lately," Garrett said.
Wilton is fighting a foreclosure case filed by its lender, iStar Financial. A judge recently appointed the Chicago firm U.S. Equities to manage the oases, but Garrett said she's concerned that the firm has ties to Blagojevich and his convicted former fundraiser, Tony Rezko.
A U.S. Equities spokeswoman said during the appointment process, "our deep credentials were fully scrutinized, both by the court and the lender. While we are confused by any concerns in this regard, we look forward to discussing our credentials with the appropriate parties."
When Wilton took over managing the rest stops, controversy surfaced that vendors linked to the ex-governor, such as the Panda Express chain, were getting sweetheart deals on rent. Senate members demanded the tollway provide them with figures on current rents and deals with vendors and operators.
They also tried to ascertain who would pay for an estimated $35 million in needed parking lot repairs.
"We want a firewall so taxpayers are not on the hook," said Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat.
The heat on tollway leaders was somewhat deflected because several key players responsible for making past decisions have left the agency and weren't present at the hearing. The ongoing court case also leaves some issues outstanding until it's resolved.
But senators said they worried the deal previously worked out with Wilton left the agency powerless to make decisions about what businesses go into the oases and how much they pay.
"Is the tollway an outsider looking in? Is there a way to assume more authority?" Garrett asked.
Newly appointed tollway Chairman Paula Wolff told senators she has established two committees to investigate the oases and look at problems with late violations notices.
"The ultimate goal is to make sure people driving the tollway have a place to stop and get the services they need," she said.
Senators also asked agency leaders to provide details on whether the fine collection system is paying for itself, making a profit or losing money.
"We need to remember that every individual who pulls onto the tollway is a customer," newly appointed board Director Bill Morris said. "We need to assume that when they do not pay a toll it is accidental and not intentional."
"There are challenges facing the system and we are working hard to address them," acting Executive Director Michael King said.