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Secret report digs into problems at tollway oases
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 1/13/2010 12:01 AM

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Subleasing activities at the Illinois tollway's oases raise questions of "an appearance of impropriety," a confidential report kept from the public concludes.

The study by the state's Office of the Executive Inspector General examined subleasing practices at the tollway's seven oases. The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority and its former oases manager, Wilton Partners, came under federal scrutiny in 2005 over favorable rates offered to politically connected fast-food vendors.

In a March 2008 e-mail to tollway executives and board members, attorney Tom Bamonte attached copies of the inspector general report, writing that its author "does not find any actual wrongdoing but concludes that there is an appearance of impropriety."

Bamonte's e-mail, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Daily Herald, also states the report "criticizes the public/private partnership model that was used for the redevelopment of the oases. As noted on the face of the document, the report should not be circulated."

The Daily Herald sent a FOI request for the report but was denied. Tollway officials said state law prohibited its release because investigatory files and reports of the executive inspector general's office are exempt from disclosure under FOI. The executive inspector general investigates fraud and abuse in state government.

State Sen. Susan Garrett, who is conducting Senate hearings into issues with tollway oases management, also was denied the report, which is dated August 2007.

"Nobody revealed to me this report existed," the Lake Forest Democrat said Tuesday. "This information could be very beneficial moving forward when the government looks at the pitfalls of public-private partnerships."

"If there is information out there that could be helpful to legislators and constituents but if you don't know it's there or can't access it - when it's available only to insiders and a select group of appointed officials - that takes the real value out of having these types of reports."

But tollway spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis noted in an e-mail that "the law is clear and the tollway has no influence on the release of the report. Disclosure is specifically prohibited by law." The authority also consulted with the executive inspector general, she said.

The tollway and Wilton were examined in 2005 by federal prosecutors regarding significant cuts in rent offered to Subway and Panda Express franchises at the oases whose owners were major donors to ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now facing corruption charges. Convicted former Blagojevich fundraiser Tony Rezko also had ties to Panda.

In 2008, the Illinois attorney general's office said a "troubling history of insider deals" prompted it to nix a tollway/Wilton proposal to give the developer a break in back rent it owed the authority. Wilton also was a Blagojevich donor.

Although Wilton's agreement to rebuild and operate the dilapidated oases was hailed as an ideal public-private partnership back in 2003, the relationship was troubled. Wilton ran into financial problems and bickered with the authority over payments and repair bills for damage it claimed was caused by tollway construction. Wilton now is fighting foreclosure proceedings filed by its lender and a new manager is in charge of the rest stops.

With such a history, withholding information on a report that digs into the subleases and is critical of the public-private partnership is clearly not in the public interest, said attorney Terry Pastika, executive director of the nonprofit Citizen Advocacy Center. The denial also raises questions about the law allowing the exemption.

"What we're seeing is clearly a flaw in the statute that needs to be re-examined," Pastika said.

"If it's regarding a public issue - tollway expansion and the public-private partnership was an integral part of the report - it should be public information."

Garrett said she intends to get the report by a possible subpoena or through the Illinois Ethics Commission, which also has jurisdiction. "There's too much secrecy and I'm going to try and change that," she said.