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State records: Davis awards scholarships outside her district

State Rep. Monique Davis with Gov. PQuinn Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. FILE PHOTO.  | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times

State Rep. Monique Davis with Gov. Pat Quinn at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. FILE PHOTO. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 29, 2012 8:03AM

The state’s controversial “legislative scholarship” program carries a simple rule for Illinois lawmakers: They may award tuition waivers for state-sponsored schools only to students who reside in the lawmaker’s respective districts.

But since 1999, state Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) has awarded taxpayer-funded scholarships to at least 10 students who records show lived outside of her Far South Side district at the time they received free tuition, the Better Government Association has found.

State law says: “Each member of the General Assembly may nominate annually 2 persons of school age and otherwise eligible, from his district . . .”

Matt Vanover, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, which administers the scholarships, said “the statute is pretty clear . . . students nominated must be from the [lawmaker’s] district.”

Davis, who has served in the Legislature for 25 years, didn’t return calls on this subject or a related BGA finding that her political supporters were among those to benefit from free tuition.

Such revelations could fuel the ongoing debate about eliminating the decades-old perk, which becomes more controversial each time a lawmaker’s picks are questioned. There is a growing movement in the General Assembly to kill the legislative scholarship program, but it’s unclear whether such a bill will pass.

A man who said he served as “scholarship chairman” for Davis and recommended potential recipients insisted the scholarships were awarded to deserving individuals who were believed to be residents of Davis’ 27th District.“It could have been an oversight,” said the adviser, Dozier Thomas. “We don’t play games . . . no hanky-panky stuff.”

Davis awarded freebie scholarships to two students who lived in the 7100 block of South Dobson — almost three miles outside of her district, records show.

The students — Cornel McKay Jr. and James McKay — collectively received three years of free tuition at Illinois State University, according to records obtained from the State Board of Education. The total cost to taxpayers: nearly $40,000, records show.

Neither McKay could be reached for comment, but a man who answered the phone at the Dobson Avenue home and identified himself as Cornel McKay Sr. said: “You’re talking about very personal matters and a politician that I know personally, and I’m not sure if I care to answer any questions.”

There were at least eight other free-tuition recipients living outside of Davis’ district when they were awarded the perk, based on public records and interviews. And the BGA found that even among scholarship recipients who lived in Davis’ district, some had political ties to the lawmaker.

For instance, William and Katherine Harris gave a total of $800 to Davis’ campaign fund between 2001 and 2006, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. They said the contributions had nothing to do with the free tuition — worth at least $13,800 — that Davis gave their two children between 2001 and 2003 to attend Eastern Illinois University.

“There are no improprieties here,” Katherine Harris said, adding that the family has donated to other politicians as well, including former gubernatorial candidate Paul Vallas and Ald. Howard Brookins (21st).

Thomas — Davis’ scholarship adviser — has worked on Davis’ campaigns, notarizing and circulating her nominating petitions and donating a total of $600 to her campaign fund between 2002 and 2007, state records show.

Thomas’ son, Rodney, received a two-year tuition waiver from Davis in 1999 to attend Northern Illinois University. State records don’t say how much that cost taxpayers, but NIU records indicate in-state tuition and fees at that time were about $4,200 a year.

Thomas said he was not involved in scholarship decision-making back then and noted that Davis’ scholarship recipients – including his child — typically earned good grades, attended church and performed community service. He would not answer more detailed questions about how scholarship recipients were chosen, deferring to Davis. She did not respond to detailed voice and fax messages.

Previous media reports about rampant scholarship irregularities helped fuel a federal probe, legislative proposals for reform, pledges from more than 90 state lawmakers to opt out of the program and even a recommendation from the State Board of Education to end the scholarships.

Past BGA investigations have uncovered irregularities with the program, prompting the nonpartisan watchdog’s policy arm and dozens of state lawmakers to advocate killing the tuition waivers — with an annual price tag of $13.5 million that’s subsidized by taxpayers. One BGA/Chicago Sun-Times investigation found that state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago) had awarded a legislative scholarship to the daughter of a former aide — and she appeared to live Downstate, hundreds of miles outside of Burke’s Southwest Side district.

Through it all, Davis has supported legislative scholarships, promoting them as a pathway to college for many who would otherwise lack the means to get there.

“There are some people in the State of Illinois who literally want and desire a college degree, but for some reason their parents don’t earn enough money or they can’t get into the university based upon their limited income,” Davis said on the House floor in March 2010 while the chamber considered legislation to eliminate the scholarships. She reiterated those sentiments during a committee meeting last week, when a bill that would eliminate the legislative perk advanced from the panel, without her support.

The state requires lawmakers and the scholarship nominees to submit notarized documents verifying that the nominee’s permanent home address is in the lawmaker’s district. And since 2010, the State Board of Education has manually checked the addresses to ensure they are within the boundaries of the legislators’ districts, Vanover said.

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