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Illinois lawmakers kill scandal-tainted scholarship perk

State Senator Annazette R. Collins her campaign office  2413 W. Madisst. Thursday March 8 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

State Senator Annazette R. Collins in her campaign office at 2413 W. Madison st. Thursday, March 8, 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 2, 2012 8:49AM



Illinois lawmakers have killed a scandal-ridden legislative scholarship program after years of debate and reports of abuses.

The House voted 79-32 Monday to do away with the tuition-waiver program this fall, despite an outcry from black lawmakers.

The legislation already had been passed by the Senate. It now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn, who said Monday he looks forward to signing it, adding that “there is no place for a political scholarship program in Illinois . . . Scholarships, paid for by Illinois taxpayers, should be awarded only to those with merit who are in true financial need.”

For a century, Illinois lawmakers have given themselves the perk of being able to hand out college scholarships.

They get to give out two four-year tuition waivers every year, often parceling them out in yearly pieces so they can give them to as many as eight students per legislator annually.

The program has been under fire for years but survived until a series of reports by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association since last summer, as well as other news reports, laid bare that some legislators have awarded scholarships to the children of campaign contributors, political allies and even a reputed mobster, as well as ignoring a requirement in the law that recipients must live in the legislator’s district.

“We have only one rule for tuition waivers, and that’s that they have to live in our districts,” said Rep. Fred Crespo (D-Hoffman Estates), the lead House sponsor of the bill. “We can’t even do that.”

Crespo faced criticism Monday from black Democratic colleagues, who argued that the program has helped cash-strapped students who otherwise couldn’t afford to go to college.

Rep. Ken Dunkin (D-Chicago), who voted to keep the program, noted that “we had two governors, two governors convicted. They’re in jail right now. Should we abolish that office also?”

Dunkin accused Crespo of putting “a nice press pop for you in some newspaper” ahead of needy students.

Crespo interrupted him, shouting, “Stop right there! It has nothing to do with a ‘press pop.’ This is the right thing to do. We need to do it now. We’ve been trying to do this for many, many years. So don’t make it personal.”

Dunkin fired back, at Crespo, saying, “This is a media issue, and it’s a media issue for you!”

In March, the Sun-Times reported that state Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago) had awarded tuition waivers to five students who listed Collins’ former home as their in-district residence, though three of them had listed addresses outside her West Side district as their homes on their driver’s licenses or voter registration.

Collins subsequently lost her election bid. Her Democratic rival, Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins, made that report a cornerstone of her primary bid to unseat Collins.

Federal investigators are looking into the program. They subpoenaed legislative scholarship records last year regarding legislative scholarships awarded by former state Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago) to four children of a campaign contributor.

The State Board of Education forwarded to the FBI legislative scholarship records of two other lawmakers — state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Cicero) and state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago) — after the Sun-Times reported they gave legislative scholarships to students who appeared to live outside the legislators’ districts.

Sandoval awarded a tuition waiver to reputed mobster Michael C. “Jaws” Giorango. Facing questions about that, Sandoval revoked the scholarship, describing the award as a “mistake.”

Last August, the Sun-Times revealed that Sandoval had awarded scholarships to five students with different last names who listed the same home address — a residence belonging to a 14th Ward precinct captain and paid Sandoval campaign worker. Motor vehicle and voter registration records cast doubt on whether the students lived at that address.

The Sun-Times and BGA reported that Burke gave a waiver to the daughter of his former Springfield secretary. The young woman, whom state driving records indicated lived downstate, used a home owned in Burke’s district by the parents of his Chicago secretary as her residence to qualify for the waiver. Burke voted Monday to abolish the program after voting in March to keep it.

In January, the Sun-Times and the BGA revealed that state Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island) awarded a $37,000 tuition waiver to the daughter of Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), a political ally who endorsed Rita for the statehouse and whose wife was employed by Rita as a $400-a-month staffer until he recently fired her after the Sun-Times reported on a probe focusing on her past employment in the secretary of state’s office.

Crespo credited the reporting for prompting action after years of debate.

“Kudos to you, the Sun-Times and the BGA, for sticking to it almost like a pit bull,” Crespo said. “That was a key. It would pop up in the past, then go away, but you guys did a very good job of keeping it alive.”



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