November 23, 2014
When the Illinois Department of Transportation wants to design roads and bridges, it turns to a panel of state-government employees and private citizens to help decide which companies get lucrative state contracts for that work.
Now, a Bradley University engineering professor who was a member of the little-known advisory body called the IDOT Consultant Selection Committee has resigned because of a flap over his co-hosting a political fund-raiser for state Sen. Martin Sandoval.
The problem: Officials of engineering firms who were asked to attend the Sandoval fund-raiser this summer complained that Amir Al-Khafaji’s role as a co-host of the $1,000-a-ticket event “certainly gave the perception of political pressure” to attend “in exchange for favoritism” in the awarding of state work, according to emails obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Ann L. Schneider, Gov. Pat Quinn’s transportation secretary, ordered an internal investigation on July 12 after learning Al-Khafaji was named in a Sandoval campaign email promoting the “Chairman’s Dinner” benefitting Sandoval’s campaign fund. Sandoval, a Cicero Democrat, chairs the Illinois Senate Transportation Committee.
Al-Khafaji’s name also appeared on invitations for the fund-raiser, which listed him as co-host along with state Senate President John J. Cullerton (D-Chicago).
Six days after the investigation began, Schneider suspended Al-Khafaji from his post on the influential selection committee.
After meeting three times with IDOT ethics investigators, Al-Khafaji resigned Aug. 7, though he said in a letter to Schneider he “respectfully disagrees” with the investigators’ conclusion that “being the co-chair for the event gave the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
“I personally asked no one to attend this event,” Al-Khafaji wrote. “I never made or accepted any calls or emailed anyone soliciting for this event. I have looked through the information and material given to me at the time of my appointment, and nowhere is there a mention of being barred from supporting a political candidate.”
Al-Khafaji was one of four “public members” of the eight-member IDOT selection committee, which also includes four IDOT staffers and usually meets once every three months to rank engineering companies’ qualifications for road-design projects. IDOT staffers then meet with the top-ranked firms to negotiate contracts for the projects. If they can’t reach an agreement on terms, they move on and negotiate with the next firm on the committee’s list.
Members serve two-year terms and are paid $250 per meeting, plus expenses.
In the past year, the committee has picked consultants for 109 design projects that altogether are worth about $224 million.
Sandoval says he didn’t know Al-Khafaji was a member of the selection committee. A Cullerton aide says the Senate president didn’t know beforehand that Al-Khafaji had any involvement in the Sandoval event.
The Bradley professor is known for heading up the yearly “Innovations Conference on Asphalt and Transportation,” a two-day event in Peoria that most recently included then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino, state transportation Secretary Schneider and Sandoval in an “executive summit” on transportation and infrastructure.
Sandoval says that if he’d known Al-Khafaji was on the IDOT panel, he “never would have asked him” to co-chair his fund-raiser, held Aug. 1 at Volare Restaurant in Oakbrook Terrace.
“I asked him because he’s a prominent engineering and transportation professor who everybody knows,” Sandoval says. “I innocently asked him to lend his name.”
Al-Khafaji says Sandoval didn’t tell him he would be named on the invitation and email when Sandoval called him in June about co-hosting.
“I did not attend the event,” Al-Khafaji says, because by the time a date was set he already had vacation plans out of state.
He says he resigned from the IDOT advisory panel to “protect my reputation and my name and move on. Clearly, others felt that this has the appearance of impropriety, when I don’t believe I did anything wrong. There was nothing that I understand — based on the agreement I signed with IDOT — that prohibited me from being a co-chair” of a political fund-raiser.
Al-Khafaji says IDOT should make its ethics rules for members more clear.
Sandoval says his fund-raiser turned out to be “not widely attended” and that he doesn’t know how much money it raised. He says Al-Khafaji “did the right thing” by stepping down.
“The burden is on the individuals who lend their names to things” to know what they can do politically, Sandoval says, suggesting that IDOT make sure Consultant Selection Committee members are “notified, instructed and trained” on ethics rules.