Second top leader exits Illinois tollway amid internal turbulance
Three years after Gov. J.B. Pritzker selected a team to reform the Illinois tollway, the agency's two top leaders are out after a turbulent tenure that included Senate scrutiny over procurement missteps and an apparent power struggle.
Tollway Executive Director José Alvarez resigned Tuesday, a few weeks after board Chairman Will Evans departed. The governor's office had no comments on Alvarez's exit.
Newly appointed Chairwoman Dorothy Abreu thanked Alvarez in a statement, noting he had "informed the board of his decision to step aside to prioritize his family's needs and to afford the new chairwoman the opportunity to establish new leadership.
"Alvarez helped the tollway continue to deliver on its $14 billion Move Illinois capital program, including during the COVID-19 pandemic," Abreu said.
Alvarez and Evans were picked by Democrat Pritzker in early 2019 as he cleaned house at the tollway amid concerns about nepotism and patronage in hiring and contracts during former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration.
But reports by the Daily Herald in 2020 that Alvarez, a former Chicago Housing Authority executive, had recruited at least nine CHA colleagues for tollway jobs with their salaries totaling more than $1.3 million raised new questions about cronyism.
Tollway officials said the new staff members were extremely well-qualified for their positions and chosen on merit.
Also in 2020, Illinois Chief Procurement Officer for General Services Ellen Daley ruled the agency acted illegally and bungled two unsuccessful bids for construction projects. The tollway's general counsel called the ruling "unfair" at a state Senate Transportation Committee hearing in August 2020.
Then unexpectedly in October 2021, board directors voted to delegate their authority to reorganize the agency's administrative offices and departments to Evans, at his behest.
Evans then revised the chain of command so that the chief financial officer reported to him as well as Alvarez. He had other executives report to the CFO and fired two top administrators recruited by Alvarez.
The reorganization created a who's-on-first dilemma that prompted another Senate hearing Dec. 7, 2021.
Evans testified that state law and tollway bylaws obligate him to act as both chairman and executive director. That raised some eyebrows among lawmakers who noted it was a potential conflict of interest and asked why Alvarez's authority was diminished.
After the Dec. 7 hearing, Pritzker said: "We've been in communication certainly with the tollway, but it's important to note that any organization has disagreements, sometimes internally, as they're doing their job. And I think the tollway is doing their job, they're building our toll roads, doing them on time and on budget."
In January, the Daily Herald reported on allegations of toxicity in the legal department after obtaining a memo by two tollway executives who recommended in the fall of 2021 that the agency's general counsel be reassigned so reports of harassment and bullying could be investigated.
On Feb. 18, Pritzker announced that Evans was retiring, saying he "led the tollway to historic progress" and "I wish him the best on a well-deserved retirement."
Sen. Laura Murphy, a tollway watchdog, thanked Alvarez and said she "looked forward to a tollway board that is accountable and transparent."
"I'm hopeful that the governor signs the legislation recently passed in the Senate that defines the leadership of the tollway so they can operate without distractions and ensure tollway users have safe and efficient roads to travel on," the Des Plaines Democrat said.
The governor appoints the tollway chairman and board directors, and by proxy the executive director. The agency has a history under both Democrats and Republicans of patronage scandals and subsequent fixes.