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Senate votes to abolish scandal-plagued scholarship program

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton

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Updated: June 5, 2012 11:35AM



SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate voted Thursday to end the abuse-ridden legislative scholarship program, which for more than a century has enabled lawmakers to dole out free college tuition to the children of campaign donors and other political insiders.

The Senate’s 43-5 vote, with five members voting present, now sends the measure back to the House, which approved a similar abolition of the legislative tuition waiver program in March.

“You wouldn’t think we’d take relish in eliminating 1,400 opportunities for kids to go to college, and that’s what the bill does,” said Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago). “But there were abuses.”

Cullerton changed the House bill abolishing the program by adding language to set up a panel to scrutinize $414 million in tuition waivers beyond those that legislators themselves hand out — such as half-off tuition waivers public university employees can claim for themselves or their children.

Five senators voted against Cullerton’s bill, including Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), Sen. Emil Jones III (D-Chicago), Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago), Sen. Michael Noland (D-Elgin) and Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago).

Five others cast “present” votes, including Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago), Sen. William Delgado (D-Chicago), Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields), Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) and Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago).

To block constituents from having “an opportunity for a legislative scholarship because you have a small number of 177 [legislators] who might have had mishaps is really a travesty when we know we haven’t properly funded the MAP [Monetary Award Program] grants. We know we haven’t properly funded the education budget,” said Lightford, who went on to challenge Gov. Pat Quinn for pushing for abolition of a program established in 1909.

“I think this will be one of his regrets,” Lightford said.

Sounding anything but regretful, Quinn praised the Senate vote as  “an important bipartisan moment of progress” and urged quick passage of Cullerton’s changes by the House.

“Abolishing a political scholarship program is the right thing for deserving students who need financial assistance to attend college,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

“As I have repeatedly advocated, scholarships paid for by Illinois taxpayers should be awarded only to those with merit who are in true financial need,” Quinn said.

Republicans also backed Thursday’s vote.

“I once was a proponent of legislative scholarships, but times change. Times change fiscally. Times change ethically,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale). “And this program has now the surveillance of the United States Attorney’s office, and it’s time as an institution we let this perk, which was properly used for many years, go. It is time that we step up and do what’s right.”

Until recently, bowing to pressure particularly from within his own caucus, Cullerton had held out hope of reforming and preserving the legislative scholarship program that allows lawmakers to dole out free tuition to whomever they want.

The Chicago Sun-Times, with help from the Better Government Association, uncovered a series of cases in which lawmakers repeatedly have violated state law with no consequences by awarding waivers to students living outside their legislative districts. The awards also have gone to the children of campaign donors, political allies and even a reputed mobster.

In early March, the Sun-Times reported on state Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago) awarding tuition waivers to five students who listed Collins’ former home as their in-district residence, even though three of them listed addresses far outside her West Side district as their homes on their drivers licenses.

She later lost her Senate race after Democratic rival Patrica Van Pelt-Watkins made that report a cornerstone of her bid to unseat Collins, who did not vote on the abolition bill Thursday.

The State Board of Education asked the FBI to investigate two other cases highlighted in the Sun-Times in which state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Cicero) and state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago) gave out legislative scholarships to students who also appeared to live outside legislators’ districts.

The Sun-Times disclosed last August that Sandoval awarded scholarships to five students with different last names who listed their home address as a residence belonging to a 14th Ward precinct captain and paid Sandoval campaign worker. Motor vehicle and voter registration records cast doubts on whether the students actually lived at that address.

Sandoval blamed the State Board of Education for not discovering a peculiarity for which he had no explanation. He also took the unusual step of moving to revoke a waiver he gave to the son of three-time felon and reputed mobster Michael C. “Jaws” Giorango, an award Sandoval described as an “error” on his staff’s part.

In Thursday’s vote, Sandoval sided with abolishing the program.

In Burke’s case, he waived four years of college tuition at Southern Illinois University for the daughter of his one-time Springfield legislative secretary. The young woman listed her residence as a home in Burke’s district that belonged to the elderly parents of his Chicago legislative secretary.

Also last August, the Sun-Times first disclosed that federal investigators were probing legislative scholarships awarded by former state Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago) to four children of a campaign donor. The feds issued two rounds of subpoenas to the State Board of Education last year seeking records about Molaro’s waivers.

And in January, the Sun-Times and BGA reported on a $37,000 tuition waiver state Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island) awarded to the daughter of Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), a close political ally who endorsed Rita for the statehouse and whose wife is employed by Rita as a $400-a-month staffer.

The bill eliminating the tuition waivers now moves to the House, where House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) has said he’ll support Cullerton’s version.

In early March, the Sun-Times reported on state Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago) awarding tuition waivers to five students who listed Collins’ former home as their in-district residence, even though three of them listed addresses far outside her West Side district as their homes on their drivers licenses.

She later lost her Senate race after Democratic rival Patrica Van Pelt-Watkins made that report a cornerstone of her bid to unseat Collins, who did not vote on the abolition bill Thursday.

The State Board of Education asked the FBI to investigate two other cases highlighted in the Sun-Times in which state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Cicero) and state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago) gave out legislative scholarships to students who also appeared to live outside legislators’ districts.

The Sun-Times disclosed last August that Sandoval awarded scholarships to five students with different last names who listed their home address as a residence belonging to a 14th Ward precinct captain and paid Sandoval campaign worker. Motor vehicle and voter registration records cast doubts on whether the students actually lived at that address.

Sandoval blamed the State Board of Education for not discovering a peculiarity for which he had no explanation. He also took the unusual step of moving to revoke a waiver he gave to the son of three-time felon and reputed mobster Michael C. “Jaws” Giorango, an award Sandoval described as an “error” on his staff’s part.

In Thursday’s vote, Sandoval sided with abolishing the program.

In Burke’s case, he waived four years of college tuition at Southern Illinois University for the daughter of his one-time Springfield legislative secretary. The young woman listed her residence as a home in Burke’s district that belonged to the elderly parents of his Chicago legislative secretary.

Also last August, the Sun-Times first disclosed that federal investigators were probing legislative scholarships awarded by former state Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago) to four children of a campaign donor. The feds issued two rounds of subpoenas to the State Board of Education last year seeking records about Molaro’s waivers.

And in January, the Sun-Times and BGA reported on a $37,000 tuition waiver state Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island) awarded to the daughter of Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), a close political ally who endorsed Rita for the statehouse and whose wife is employed by Rita as a $400-a-month staffer.

The bill eliminating the tuition waivers now moves to the House, where House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) has said he’ll support Cullerton’s version.



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