Projects with Madigan ties went to the front of the line for massive Rebuild Illinois initiative

Projects with Madigan ties went to the front of the line for massive Rebuild Illinois initiative

Former House Speaker Michael Madigan. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

The $45 billion statewide capital plan includes $4 billion in pet projects added by a handful of the state’s most powerful politicians, including the former House speaker.

For the better part of the past decade, hotel owners Jon Weglarz and Mark Weglarz fought to put a damper on the noise caused by screeching train brakes outside their Midway Airport-area properties.

Now, it appears they’ve finally succeeded — with the intervention of the Weglarz brothers’ longtime property tax lawyer, then-House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, who delivered $98 million in taxpayer money for what undoubtedly would be one of the most expensive brake jobs in history.

The Madigan-sponsored project was among nearly $4 billion in pet projects that a handful of legislators inserted into the state’s largest-ever capital projects bill in 2019. Dubbed Rebuild Illinois, the package was touted as a way to advance Illinois into the 21st century, with $45 billion in infrastructure improvements, including roads, bridges and public works projects.

Through a process largely shrouded in secrecy, certain projects got pushed to the top of that list without the normal scrutiny the state gives massive public works initiatives. And, until his ouster last year amid a federal corruption investigation, Madigan played a key role in the allocation of funds for these projects, which were labeled “leadership additions.”

Records show at least $144 million went to four projects backed by Madigan that avoided the usual review process and benefited people the former speaker has ties to.

Beside the money for reducing the noise from trains near Midway Airport, those projects also included $31 million for a charter school records show asked for only $1.5 million, $9 million for a new Chicago high school building that the Chicago Public Schools hadn’t sought that funding for and $6 million for a Romeoville airport control tower that a Madigan political ally had wanted for years.

Madigan won’t talk about the spending decisions, declining interview requests and not responding to written questions.

The Weglarz brothers say they never asked for the $98 million from the state and declined to answer questions abut Madigan’s dual roles as their lawyer and their state representative.

Unvetted and secret

The $45 billion in capital improvement spending was passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support. Most of the billions funded by Rebuild Illinois were lumped into general categories for infrastructure work across the state. Which particular projects get funding — which bridge gets fixed, which bike paths get built — generally isn’t decided until after proponents make their pitches to state bureaucrats and other officials.

But the massive spending package also included the $4 billion in itemized “Leadership Additions to Rebuild Illinois,” projects that, like the noise-abatement work, were tacked on with little public scrutiny, a Better Government Association analysis has found.

Most of that $4 billion was added to the capital bill by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic majority leaders who then controlled both houses, according to documents from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

Of the $4 billion in itemized projects, $2 billion was for 18 projects each labeled a “Governor’s Office Addition,” the records show. Another $368 million were labeled “House Democrat Leadership Addition.” And $326 million were labeled “Senate Democrat Leadership Addition.” The remaining $1.2 billion of projects were identified only as “leadership additions.”

The $4 billion of specific projects were in addition to so-called member initiatives that were part of the Rebuild Illinois plan, in which $600 million was set aside for state senators and representatives to direct to projects in their districts.

The sponsors’ names weren’t cited in the bill. So the BGA requested lists of sponsors from the governor’s office and the four legislative caucuses representing House and Senate Democrats and Republicans. None would provide the lists.

Nor does the term “leadership additions” appear in the legislation Pritzker signed into law.

Only after the BGA requested project records from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget — two years after the bill was passed — was the existence of the “leadership additions” revealed and the list of projects specified.

Asked how particular projects ended up among the select group of additions, a Pritzker aide says the governor picked his projects based largely on his personal contacts and observations.

Former Illinois Senate President John Cullerton: “Don’t remember.” Rich Hein / Sun-Times
Former Illinois Senate President John Cullerton: “Don’t remember.”

“Project ideas came from every corner of Illinois,” says Carol Knowles, a spokeswoman for the management and budget office. “The governor gathered ideas as he witnessed the need with his own eyes and from listening to residents as he traveled the state even before he was elected the state’s chief executive.

“Project ideas often came from multiple groups.”

In addition to Pritzker, the two other key players who oversaw the additions were Madigan and then-Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, records show.

“I’m sorry, I really don’t remember the details of this legislation that was well over two years ago,” says Cullerton, who since has retired.

A sign for a Hyatt Place Chicago, DoubleTree by Hilton and Residence Inn by Marriott hotels near 65th Street and South Cicero Avenue in Bedford Park. Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times
A sign for a Hyatt Place Chicago, DoubleTree by Hilton and Residence Inn by Marriott hotels near 65th Street and South Cicero Avenue in Bedford Park.

‘I was stunned’

The noise problems for the Weglarz brothers began in 2014 after a near-accident at the nearby Belt Railway switching yard — the largest in North America — prompted officials to add a second set of brakes added to the rails.

After that work was completed, patrons at the Weglarz brothers’ three hotels in Bedford Park complained about sleepless nights due to screeching train brakes, which peaked at 92 decibels, far exceeding the 65 decibel maximum allowed by village ordinance.

For years, the Weglarzes passed along to authorities the complaints of hotel guests including flight crews laying over from Midway. They got local tax dollars to help pay for sound insulation at the hotels. They hired noise consultants, as did suburban officials. They complained to the state’s pollution control board.

They also enlisted the help of Bedford Park Village President Dave Brady, who says he decided to ask Madigan for the money “on a whim.”

“I was stunned when we got the call,” Brady says of the earmark, the largest Rebuild Illinois allocation with direct ties to Madigan.

A spokesman for the Belt Railway yard says the company didn’t request the $98 million grant, under which the Illinois Department of Transportation has begun assessing the noise issues and whether the company’s noise-reduction measures have helped.

Trains at the Belt Railway yard, 6900 S. Central Ave.  Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times
Trains at the Belt Railway yard, 6900 S. Central Ave.

Madigan & Getzendanner, the former speaker’s law firm, has represented the Weglarz brothers’ Bedford Park hotels for years, saving them $3 million in property taxes over three years, according to Cook County records.

The hotels are an important source of revenue for Bedford Park and other government bodies, paying $4.1 million in state and local taxes a year, according to a brief the Weglarz brothers filed when they made their since-dropped noise complaint to the pollution control board.

Brady says he approached Madigan about money for another project — an overpass at Harlem Avenue and 65th Street that received $150 million under the state’s operating budget.

Former U.S. Rep. William Lipinski, a longtime Madigan friend and ally, was Bedford Park’s $5,000-a-month lobbyist in 2019 and has been for years, records show.

Brady says Lipinski — who didn’t respond to emailed questions — knew about the noise problems but didn’t lobby for the $98 million.

In the months before Rebuild Illinois was passed, Lipinski spoke with Madigan as many as four times a month, according to invoices Lipinski filed with other lobbying clients.

Madigan & Getzendanner also has handled property tax appeals for Lipinski and his two children, including former U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, though a Madigan spokesperson says the law firm did not collect fees for the work, which saved them almost $30,000 over six years.

Lewis University Airport control tower under construction in Romeoville. Rich Hein / Sun-Times
Lewis University Airport control tower under construction in Romeoville.

$6 million airport tower

The relationship between Madigan and the Lipinski family played a role in a $6 million “Leadership Addition” for a control tower at Lewis University Airport in Romeoville, which serves corporate aircraft and is a reliever airport for Midway and O’Hare airports.

As a congressman, Dan Lipinski worked for years to get federal funding for the control tower. When federal funding was slow to materialize, records show Lipinski got the Illinois Legislature to step in.

Records show that, in an email, airport lobbyist Jason Tai wrote that Lipinski launched the earmark process by pushing for the grant with Madigan. Tai wrote that elected officials “carried a whole lot of water on this from the initiation of this from Congressman Lipinski advocating with Speaker Madigan to kick start things.”

Before Rebuild Illinois was passed, Tai, who had been congressional chief of staff for William Lipinski and Dan Lipinski, asked airport officials in another email to check with state lawmakers about whether funding for the control tower could be included in the capital bill.

“Heard from someone close to the Speaker that its [sic] getting quite real,” Tai wrote, following up days later with news their efforts had succeeded thanks to “the leadership of Congressman Lipinski, [Romeoville] Mayor [John] Noak and your state legislators …”

John Connor, at the time the state representative for the district including the airport, says he pressed for tower funding as part of Rebuild Illinois but was “not privy to the process used to determine which projects from members made it into the capital bill or why certain projects were not included.”

Connor was elected to the Illinois Senate in 2020.

The airport is in the third congressional district Dan Lipinski represented before current U.S. Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., defeated him in the 2020 Democratic primary. Madigan backed Lipinski in the primary and carried the Madigan-controlled 13th Ward for Lipinski. Madigan is also the longtime Democratic state committeeman for the congressional district. Lipinski had listed getting the tower funding as a major accomplishment during the campaign.

Lipinski says he worked to get the Rebuild Illinois funding for the control tower “after serving as a transportation co-chair on Governor Pritzker’s infrastructure transition committee” and the project was one of his longtime priorities.

“When the new congressional maps were released in spring 2011, I visited with all of the mayors in what would be the new sections of the Third Congressional District,” Lipinski says by email in response to questions. “One of Romeoville Mayor John Noak’s top priorities for economic development . . . was to improve the safety and ease of use of Lewis University Airport which included adding a control tower.”

David Silverman, chairman of the governmental district that owns and operates the airport, says it was “fortunate to receive the $6 million” and that the tower was “difficult to finance because the Joliet Regional Port District does not levy any property taxes,” relying instead on operating revenues and government grants. The port district acquired the airport from Lewis University in 1989.

Silverman says the tower — under construction and set to open in May — will “increase greatly the safety” of over 100,000 takeoffs and landings a year.

Future site of Academy for Global Citizenship School, near West 44th Street and South Laporte Avenue. Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times
Future site of Academy for Global Citizenship School, near West 44th Street and South Laporte Avenue.

‘Tell me you’re not kidding’

The third earmark tied to Madigan went to the Academy for Global Citizenship, a privately run, publicly funded charter school that opened in 2008 on the Southwest Side near Madigan’s former House district. It got $31 million — almost enough to fully fund the school’s plans to build a new campus on six acres formerly occupied by the Chicago Housing Authority’s LeClaire Courts public housing development west of Cicero Avenue and south of the Stevenson Expressway.

The $31 million is more than half of the $58.3 million set aside for individual Chicago schools in the Rebuild Illinois infrastructure bill, according to Chalkbeat Chicago. Charter schools typically get little taxpayer funding for school construction.

The grant came after the Academy for Global Citizenship hired Jeffrey Glass, a former top Madigan state employee turned lobbyist, records show. Taking Glass’ advice, school founder Sarah Elizabeth Ippel asked state Sen. Antonio Munoz, D-Chicago, to sponsor a $1 million grant as one of his member initiatives, emails and texts released in response to public records requests show.

But Munoz says he didn’t do that, saying the $31 million grant was “not my initiative.”

During the final weeks of the 2019 legislative session, Glass also told Ippel he intended to meet with Madigan, according to the emails and texts, which don’t detail what happened.

But other public records show that, at about the same time Glass approached Madigan, Glass hired former Ald. Michael Zalewski, a Madigan ally, to work with him on the Academy account.

Zalewski has become embroiled in the same sweeping federal investigation that prompted Madigan to leave office. The investigation has focused on Commonwealth Edison and its efforts to hire lobbyists with ties to Madigan to influence him to advance ComEd’s political agenda in Springfield. As part of the probe, investigators are examining how ComEd hired Zalewski.

Neither Madigan nor Zalewski has been charged with any crime.

One month after hiring Zalewski and telling Ippel he planned to meet with Madigan, Glass texted Ippel with news as the Rebuild Illinois bill was being finalized.

“I think I got you $31 million,” he wrote.

“Please tell me you’re not kidding,” Ippel responded.

“Slow down. I’m checking the figure and the decimals,” Glass texted back, then: “It’s correct. $31 million.”

“This is an incredible day,” Ippel wrote back.

Records show the $31 million was another “House Democrat Leadership Addition” line item.

Glass didn’t respond to emailed questions.

Financial disclosure reports that Illinois lobbyists are required to file show that, in 2019. Glass was the only lobbyist who reported picking up a tab for dinner or drinks with the speaker in Springfield or Chicago.

The privately run school paid Glass $7,500 for six weeks of work, records show.

A year later, in July 2020, the city of Chicago rezoned the former CHA property to permit the Academy for Global Citizenship to build there.

In the following months, Ippel tried repeatedly to get the state funds released, emails and records show, by sending direct messages to the governor and dropping Madigan’s name in emails to Pritzker’s staff.

“I also confirmed that Speaker Madigan has submitted the request to the Governor’s office,” she wrote to Bria Scudder, one of Pritzker’s top deputies.

Emails show Scudder forwarded the message to the director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, which plays a critical role in releasing state grant funds.

Ippel also exchanged messages with Mark Jarmer, a top Madigan aide, who repeatedly called another state official on the academy’s behalf, records show, before succeeding in getting the money released to the academy.

Ippel declined interview requests. Provided with written questions, academy representatives wouldn’t discuss Madigan’s role or any interactions between Madigan and Glass involving the $31 million grant. Through the spokesman, they say the project “will extend beyond the public school mission,” provide a neighborhood hub on land “that has experienced decades of disinvestment” and “catalyze revitalization on Chicago’s Southwest Side.”

Jarmern and Zalewski didn’t respond to emailed questions.

A grant from Rebuild Illinois went to the new building for John Hancock College Preparatory High School, 5437 W. 64th Pl., even though Chicago Public Schools officials didn’t apply for the state money.  Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times
A grant from Rebuild Illinois went to the new building for John Hancock College Preparatory High School, 5437 W. 64th Pl., even though Chicago Public Schools officials didn’t apply for the state money.

Grant CPS didn’t ask for

Another grant listed as a “House Democrat Leadership Addition” was $9 million for CPS’s John Hancock College Preparatory High School, a selective-enrollment high school in Madigan’s former legislative district on the Southwest Side that was a pet project of his.

The school was given the state funding even though CPS didn’t request it, according to records and interviews.

For 10 years, Madigan and his political ally Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) pushed city officials to create a school on the Southwest Side for high-achieving students, which Quinn said would to keep families from moving out of the city in search of better schools. In 2014, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Hancock would become a selective-enrollment school. Four years later, Emanuel, Madigan and Quinn announced Hancock would get a new building at 64th Place and Long Avenue.

Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo are reporters for the Better Government Association.
Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo are reporters for the Better Government Association.

A CPS spokesperson says the unrequested $9 million — of the more than $58 million earmarked in Rebuild Illinois for specific Chicago schools, second only to the Academy for Global Citizenship — was “independently initiated by the Illinois House Democratic Caucus as a result of community requests” and would supplement the project’s $82 million construction budget.

The grant was to help build a theater, eight classrooms, a computer lab and added lunchroom space to allows the school to go from four lunch periods to three, according to CPS. The building was finished in time for the first day of school in August.

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