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From farmboy to FBI to cleaning up the tollway
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

James Wagner

 

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Published: 1/19/2010 4:48 PM | Updated: 1/19/2010 5:07 PM

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A seasoned FBI crime-fighter now putting his experience to use at the Illinois tollway says he needs more hands on deck to do the job properly.

James W. Wagner is the agency's new general manager of investigations and audits. The position entails handling internal investigations and audits, rooting out corruption, and correcting mismanagement and misconduct.

"We are here to make sure things are done correctly, honestly and openly," Wagner said.

His goal is to create a crack audit and investigations team and that will involve hiring more staff, he believes. "We need more people - it's one of the first things I want to work on," Wagner said.

The job is familiar ground for Wagner, who most recently served as Chicago Crime Commission director. Before that he was deputy administrator of investigations for the Illinois Gaming Board.

The former farmboy from Central Illinois saw the seamy side of life as an FBI agent from 1969 to 2000, ending his tenure as head of Chicago's organized crime unit.

The tollway's had its share of scandal in the past including the 1997 theft conviction of former CEO Robert Hickman in a kickback scheme involving tollway land deals. Mostly recently, the agency was tainted by indicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's alleged discussion of using road projects to extort contractor donations, according to the FBI.

Critics say it's also been a dumping ground by both Republicans and Democrats for patronage jobs.

But the agency also has seen major leadership shifts in 2009 with the departure of top executives and the appointment of a new chairman and board members.

Wagner acknowledged the ethical shadow, saying "I want to make sure we have procedures in place that would not allow anything like that to occur.

"I don't have any preconceived notion about the tollway. It certainly appears that everyone here is professional and wants to try and do all the right things. What I'm looking for is people who will do the right things."

Unfortunately in Illinois, the tollway isn't the only agency to face accusations of patronage and conflict of interest, he noted.

"I don't think it's a unique situation in Illinois that you have people trying to get people jobs, whatever agency you talk about. It may be unfair to limit it to the tollway."

Wagner intends to be a hands-on manager.

"Obviously my experience in investigations with the FBI will be helpful and my contacts in law enforcement and some within the judicial system will be of assistance," he said.

"I will participate directly in the work, hopefully I'll be able to impart some of my experience and knowledge."

Wagner who is 66 and lives in the Northwest Suburbs says he isn't ready for retirement.

"I enjoy work and its challenges but I'm not in any way ready to just go sit."