By Chris Robling -
“At the College of DuPage, taxpayers don’t count, insiders do.”
With that quote, repeated three times in one editorial by the Chicago Tribune, lone reform trustee Kathy Hamilton summed up what has become 2015’s most important local race outside the City of Chicago.
After a year of scandals rocking the College of DuPage that beg for honest reformers, the local GOP hierarchy has endorsed a status quo ticket in the April 7 trustee race.
College of DuPage is the second largest provider of higher education in Illinois, after the University of Illinois itself. The College’s distinguished faculty teaches numerous top-tier programs, such as a two-year engineering route that leads to a seat at the U. of I., one of the great engineering schools.
But the faculty has led the charge against an administration devoted to insider deals, no-bid and sole-source contracts, public exclusion, outrageous expenses for senior management and 18 property tax and student tuition hikes in the last 20 years.
The local GOP sides with... the administration. In fact, in the non-partisan contest, DuPage’s GOP chair took the unprecedented step this week of spending scare party funds for a district-wide mailer to push its “no scandal here, please move on” ticket.
Most recently, the COD Board has steadfastly ignored legislative calls for an Illinois Auditor General performance review. This week, a bipartisan Illinois House panel unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for COD to accept the audit. But COD’s board has refused, citing costs of about $200,000.
Crying poor about the performance audit makes little sense. College of DuPage’s operating budget is $270 million. In the last six years, it spent more than $500 million on new construction and other capital programs. Its cash-on-hand is more than $215 million.
And, the board has show little hesitation to spend money. They encouraged their lawyers to engage a top Chicago public relations firm — Res Publica — for a “blended rate” of $250 per hour, with no cap on expenditures. Using the College’s law firm as a middle-person avoided 100 percent of COD’s procurement regulations, such as they are.
Less than a month after the PR firm started, and just before the election, splashy and self-congratulatory mailers began landing across the district, telling residents that everything at COD is totally awesome. No spending figures for either the PR firm or mailers has been released. In fact, COD ignored a board member’s FOIA for same.
Rauner administration aids are watching COD closely. The governor’s turn-around budget cuts funding to municipalities. COD’s excesses show there is plenty of belt-tightening to go around – even in the Republican stronghold of DuPage. But local GOPers want someone else’s ox to be gored.
This after six Chicago Tribune editorials since last summer, all urging a reform mandate. In January, the Tribune, for the second time in 160 years, called for the mass-resignation of an Illinois public board at COD — all but whistle-blower Kathy Hamilton of Hinsdale, a political novice with a professional background in international corporate finance. The other six members voting twice to give COD’s imperious president a retirement bonus of $763,000 tipped the balance for the Tribune.
The Tribune’s higher education reporter Jodi S. Cohen and her colleague Stacy St. Clair have chronicled a series of revelations, working with good government groups such as Adam Andrzejewski’s www.openthebooks.com and the downstate-based Edgar County Watchdogs.
One arrest has been made. Retired College radio-station chief engineer John Valenta was picked up 13 months after his case was turned over to the DuPage County State’s Attorney, on the day that the Tribune published a story detailing his more than ten years of self-dealings at a cost of more than $400,000 to DuPage taxpayers. Valenta had received a last-year promotion, that increased his pension, as well as a final payout — after his case was turned over to law enforcement. But DuPage County law enforcement could not find its way to arrest him until the Tribune published.
Andrzejewski, who left politics for transparency not-for-profits after his rookie 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary bid, uncovered more than $192 million in no-bid and sole-source contracts to members of the College of DuPage Foundation board. Contract recipients or associated individuals are mainstays of the local GOP fundraising circuit.
One prominent local fundraiser, Matt Gambs, has been slated as a “stay-the-course” candidate. The other is Sandy Pihos, trying a comeback after losing her re-election bid for her State Representative seat in the GOP primary last year to Peter Breen. Other candidates in the April race seem not to be contesting the election. The GOP threw a bone to reformers by endorsing Elmhurst patent attorney Deanne Mazzochi, a no-nonsense litigator on the Clean Slate, who is endorsed by Hamilton and the COD teachers’ association.
Gambs, who has helped raise more than $270,000 for the DuPage County Republican Central Committee since 2008, has a background that closely mirrors COD’s scandals.
As CEO of Diamond Bank, the federal government ordered him to end unlawful acts, come up with a viable business plan, cease-and-desist from insider loans, foreswear out-of-line bonuses and compensation, replace yes-men directors, end golden parachute payments and bring in outside auditors to build-up internal controls.
Gambs was a senior executive of two other failed banks, and as a businessman he prosecuted a lengthy and extensive lawsuit against an associate that was found to be without merit.
When Edgar County Watchdogs asked Gambs if he knew former Bloomingdale Township GOP chairman Hank Gianvecchio, Gambs said no. That is odd, because in 2005 Edgar County Watchdogs show that he gave Gianvecchio’s township organization $1100. Gianvecchio is a colorful figure who abruptly resigned both his official and party positions at the same time, causing waves of rumors throughout Bloomingdale Township and the DuPage GOP.
Gambs’ effort to distance himself might therefore be understandable, but like the U.S. Government’s laundry list of orders mentioned above, it evokes comparison to COD’s inability to come clean to the state auditor, and its desire for self-regarding spin from its tony PR firm. Edgar County Watchdogs: https://edgarcountywatchdogs.com/2015/03/cod-political-endorsements-fail-the-public-part-ii/
Sandy Pihos lost her long-held House seat after working closely with Governor Quinn and Springfield Democrats to cut off public access to vital school information by gutting Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act at the behest of the teachers’ unions. Given COD’s opacity, many argued within the party that for this reason alone, Pihos was precisely wrong for this assignment. As recently as December, she reportedly said that no case had been made against the COD administration.
Pihos had earlier found herself on the union-backed Democrat side of Springfield policy disputes when she was one of a handful of GOPers who squelched educational opportunities for poor Chicago children through then-Senator James Meeks’ school choice plan. Governor Rauner named Meeks chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education in his first wave of appointments, accentuating Pihos’ distance from the mainstream of her party.
Meanwhile, Democrats, who have significantly encroached upon one-time DuPage GOP dominance, boast that teacher union-supporting voters, who will turn out in April to gain control of local school boards, will vote for Pihos, now that she has GOP support, along with Democrat Dan Bailey – who campaigns as a reformer in the mold of Hamilton.
But just as Governor Rauner ignored party labels in naming Meeks to that important post, one is struck by how little at COD is actually partisan. Since there is no “conservative” or “moderate” way to run a procurement office, only “honest” or “corrupt” ways, COD ends up being about money and power. It is a fight between an establishment clinging to their insider-dealing way of doing business, and taxpayer-respecting reformers.
And, since our establishment has been described by John Kass of the Tribune as a combine of Democrat and Republican interests, it is noteworthy that COD has turned to two key Democrats in recent years. Tom Glaser ran finances for Cook County Board president John Stroger. Glaser turned up at COD under its current president as chief financial officer. In truth, he is the chief operating officer to the president’s CEO.
Nominally, COD’s comptroller is Lynn Sapyta – retired treasurer of the Chicago Transit Authority. In fact, Sapyta acts as CFO, while Glaser operates the place.
By backing two candidates who would maintain the administration’s hold on COD, DuPage Republicans are in fact endorsing the work of John Stroger’s CFO and the CTA’s longtime treasurer, odd though that may seem.
Perennial DuPage candidate Dave Carlin, seeking a win after three straight losses, has sought to justify his hiring of Glaser when he chaired COD’s board, on the basis of technical skill. Carlin has also spent the campaign rationalizing his hiring of president Breuder and his expensive extension of Breuder’s contract, after Carlin’s 2013 re-election defeat -- but while he still held the gavel. Originally, the DuPage GOP did not endorse. It “recommended” Carlin and the other three, for three slots on the ballot. But after Carlin’s bizarre campaigning, he was dumped and the endorsement issued.
Prominence, money, fundraising, insiders, no-bid contracts and wanton disregard for public disclosure — COD is a GOP reform dream waiting to happen. Except, the local party cannot hear voter outcry – — or simple honesty — for the flow of benefits it will dearly miss.
Governor Rauner may need examples of local stringency, but that is not enough for the insiders to countenance reformers Mazzochi, Charles Bernstein, and Frank Napolitano, who are campaigning with Hamilton’s support as “The Clean Slate for COD.”
Several months ago I wrote here that resolving the COD mess would test Republican commitment to reform at the crucial moment of Governor Rauner’s entrance into Springfield. It has. By backing Matt Gambs and Sandy Pihos, and opposing the Clean Slate, the DuPage Republican party has sat for that test, and failed.