Records: Vendors who supported massive COD borrowing plan got work from school
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By: Robert Sanchez
Vendors who donated tens of thousands of dollars to a group that lobbied for a massive borrowing plan by the College of DuPage were given millions of dollars in work by the school in the years after the ballot question was approved, a review of election and school spending records shows.
Already in the midst of an extensive construction program enabled by a 2002 voter-approved tax increase, COD was given permission by voters in November 2010 to borrow $168 million for several renovation and construction projects on its Glen Ellyn campus.
The work involved upgrades to the McAninch Arts Center, the library and the physical education building, as well as improved accessibility and new space for the school's Homeland Security program.
How some of the companies were chosen for those and other projects -- and whether the school engaged in "pay-to-play" politics -- is being questioned by Adam Andrzejewski of OpenTheBooks.com, a government transparency group.
"All of the campaign donations, vendor contracts and election-cycle college marketing transactions are completely legal if conducted at arm's length. But the pattern is troubling," Andrzejewski said. "COD erased the institutional lines between government and political action."
COD board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton said in a written statement that the college is aware of Andrzejewski's concerns.
"They raise deeply troubling questions about the sequence of events, participants, activities and legal authority, or lack thereof, for what college employees did," Hamilton said. "We are in the midst of cooperating with law enforcement on its investigations."
COD spokesman Randall Samborn on Wednesday declined to comment, citing "ongoing investigations."
Questions about pay-to-play and other administrative policies and practices at the state's largest community college have sparked state and federal probes. School officials also are doing their own internal investigation.
Andrzejewski says he expects agencies delving into COD's past to discover what his group learned after examining years of spending by the college.
Sixteen vendors who contributed money to Supporters of College of DuPage -- the political committee that pushed for the 2010 referendum proposal -- went on to bill the college for tens of millions of dollars between November 2010 and June 2014, according to Andrzejewski.
"A transparent and competitive contracting procurement process eliminates many governance issues," Andrzejewski said. "In COD's case, just a few companies received a large percentage of all vendor spending."
Mortenson Construction, which contributed $5,000 to the political committee, received about $65 million from the college to oversee the McAninch Arts Center and library projects. However, most of the money given to Mortenson was used to pay subcontractors, who were chosen through a competitive bidding process, college officials have said. Still, the company didn't have to compete to get its professional service contracts. It made more than $1.6 million as a construction manager for both projects, school officials have acknowledged.
On Wednesday, Mortenson issued a written statement saying the company hasn't been awarded contracts for other work it sought to do with COD.
"In 2011, Mortenson proposed and was selected to build the Student Resource Center and the McAninch Center," the statement reads. "We have submitted proposals for other work with the school since that time but have not been selected to build those projects."
Mark Stern, an attorney who lives in Oak Brook, raised concerns about COD's referendum months before the election.
"There was a lot of marketing for a supposedly government organization that's noncommercial in nature," he said.
In the run-up to Election Day 2010, the COD board approved more than $250,000 for an advertising campaign to educate voters about the plan.
Illinois law, however, prohibits the use of public funds to advocate for ballot questions. As a result, tax-increase referendums often are supported by separate political committees that are supposed to be independent of the government body.
Fundraising efforts began after COD trustees voted on Aug. 9, 2010, to put the referendum question on the ballot.
Two weeks later, 83 people -- political donors, vendors, trustees and members of COD's senior management team -- were invited to a referendum party at a Barrington restaurant.
The party cost $8,445, including $2,500 for alcohol. COD President Robert Breuder, now on leave from the college, used his own credit card to pay the bill. Weeks later, he was reimbursed by the college for $5,945, which paid for everything except the alcohol.
Of the 10 vendors who attended that party, eight ended up contributing to the Supporters of College of DuPage group.
Between Oct. 14 and Oct. 30, the Supporters of College of DuPage collected $64,357 in campaign money and in-kind donations. Most of that total came from companies -- and employees of companies -- that had business relationships with COD.
Several employees with Power Construction donated a total of $10,000 to the group. In the years that followed, the company was given three construction management contracts by the college and received more than $1 million in fees.
Between November 2010 and June 2014, Moore Landscapes Inc. and the architectural firm of Loebl Schlossman & Hackl received payments from COD totaling $2.7 million and $4.2 million, respectively. Moore donated $1,600 to the referendum campaign, while Loebl Schlossman contributed $5,000, records show.
The largest single contribution of $10,000 came from the J. Legat Family Partnership.
Legat Architects is the firm that was paid by COD to design the Homeland Security Education Center, according to COD board records. It received about $4.4 million from COD between November 2010 and June 2014.
Attempts to contact several vendors were unsuccessful on Wednesday. One vendor, Crowe Horwath, declined to comment.
Some of the vendors, such as Power and Legat, did do prior work for the college. Also in that group is Wight & Company, which made an in-kind donation to Supporters of College of DuPage. Wight officials on Wednesday issued a written statement saying it has had a professional partnership with COD for the past 35 years.
"We have helped the school whenever asked," the statement reads. "We will continue to do so and hope our relationship can continue."
The donations from vendors is what originally caught Stern's attention.
"It's the same old story as with all these referendum campaigns," Stern said. "The folks that are standing to benefit are the ones putting the money in."
Even though the college paid Chicago-based Michael Walters Advertising for the educational campaign, Supporters of College of DuPage also paid the firm $40,450 to provide yard signs, postcards and automated telephone calls to sell voters on the idea of approving the ballot question.
That prompted Stern to file a complaint against Supporters of College of DuPage, claiming that it violated state election law by not identifying itself as the group responsible for posting signs supporting the ballot question.
The Illinois State Board of Elections ended up ruling against the political committee, saying its actions were improper. But no fines or sanctions were levied.
That December, Supporters of College of DuPage paid Michael Walters Advertising another $7,119 to purchase "thank you ads," according to campaign records.
And while school officials insisted the initiative would allow the college only to extend its existing taxing level, COD trustees approved a resolution less than three weeks after the election that increased the tax rate.
"The college's poll-tested marketing message was the promise of a 'No tax hike bond referendum,'" Andrzejewski said. "But immediately the board broke trust by passing a property tax hike at the very next meeting and double-digit increases since. It was a disingenuous campaign slogan at best and clearly abused voter and taxpayer trust."
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