Tollway tempest continues into 2022 with legal discord and Senate action

  • Illinois tollway Chairman Willard Evans testifies at an Illinois Senate Transportation Committee hearing on a controversial restructuring Dec. 7 with General Counsel Kathleen Pasulka-Brown.

      Illinois tollway Chairman Willard Evans testifies at an Illinois Senate Transportation Committee hearing on a controversial restructuring Dec. 7 with General Counsel Kathleen Pasulka-Brown. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

  • Tollway Executive Director José Alvarez, shown in 2019, heads the $1.5 billion agency that's seen its share of administrative turbulence.

    Tollway Executive Director José Alvarez, shown in 2019, heads the $1.5 billion agency that's seen its share of administrative turbulence. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Posted1/10/2022 5:30 AM

2021 didn't end quietly for the Illinois tollway, with controversial firings, an organizational shake-up that incensed Latino and Black lawmakers and a Senate probe into a power struggle between top leaders.

This year continues the action-packed trend with new questions about legal department toxicity and imminent Senate action.

 

Here are three evolving stories to monitor in the coming weeks:

1. A hostile work environment?

On Oct. 19, the tollway's former Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Ross and Chief of Human Resource Administration Rohit Paul recommended the agency's top lawyer, General Counsel Kathleen Pasulka-Brown, be reassigned so reports of harassment and bullying could be investigated, according to a memo obtained by the Daily Herald.

The memo references firsthand accounts of a "horrible and demeaning" work atmosphere where lawyers are prohibited from talking to people in other departments without approval and staff members are "scared to say anything" because they feel "Pasulka-Brown is protected" by Chairman Will Evans.

One attorney cited rude comments, being denied paid time off for a doctor's appointment, and frequent calls, texts or emails on evenings and weekends about work.

After making a formal complaint to HR, that attorney faced demotion and salary cuts, the memo states.

The attorney also filed a complaint with the tollway's Equal Employment Opportunity officer. However, on Oct. 21, the tollway board expanded Evans' authority and he restructured the chain of command so that the EEO officer reports directly to Pasulka-Brown.

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"The tollway is committed to ensuring that all employees are treated with respect. Like all other entities, we cannot comment on personnel matters," spokesman Dan Rozek said.

Pasulka-Brown has been in practice more than 30 years and is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

2. Who is the alpha executive?

On Oct. 25, Evans fired Ross and Chief Procurement Officer Dee Brookens, both allies of Chief Executive Director José Alvarez, who recruited them.

Evans also required the chief financial officer to report directly to him, as well as Alvarez, and made procurement fall under the CFO to improve "control and management of tollway spending."

The diminishing of Alvarez's duties infuriated members of the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus who told Gov. J.B. Pritzker in a letter they have the CEO's back. Alvarez is one of a few Latinos leading a state agency and "we are rightly concerned that he is being treated unfairly in this situation," the caucus wrote.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

State Rep. and House Black Caucus Chairman Kam Buckner also wrote Pritzker to express "outrage" at Ross and Brookens' terminations. Buckner said his concerns were exacerbated because Illinois State Police, not tollway officials, delivered the bad news and came to their homes to collect tollway property.

Both women are Black, and "for people of color, these types of actions have historically negative connotations. Despite their significant contributions to the tollway, these women were treated like criminals," Buckner wrote Oct. 30.

Brookens and Ross protested their dismissals in a Nov. 1 letter to board directors, saying Evans was firing, hiring and dispensing raises without authority and had interfered with procurement.

Evans, a former People's Gas chief and Northwestern University Black Alumni Association president, did not comment on the letter.

The Alvarez/Evans tensions have caused speculation that one of them could be on the way out. But asked about the palace intrigue, Pritzker, who appoints the tollway board, indicated last month he would be hands-off. "It's important to note that any organization has disagreements," Pritzker said.

Nevertheless, "you can't have two executive directors," observed Greg Bedalov, a former tollway executive director, currently president of Choose DuPage Economic Development Alliance. "It's not fair to the executive director and the board. The roles need to be clearly defined."

3. Senate action?

Illinois senators think more is at stake than a personality clash.

The Senate Transportation Committee grilled Evans about leadership structure at a Dec. 7 hearing and a number of lawmakers were troubled by his assertion that state law and tollway bylaws obligate him to act as chief executive officer.

Additional hearings will be scheduled in the coming months, Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines said Friday.

Typically, tollway directors fall in line with leadership. However, on Dec. 16, with Evans absent, the board held a lengthy executive session, then emerged without taking action.

A resolution may come soon. Legislation to clarify the executive director's role is being prepared, Murphy said.

"We are certainly looking at avenues to ensure the structure of the tollway is efficient, effective and transparent," she said.

• Got an opinion on the tollway situation or other transportation issues? Drop an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

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