City Hall's bill collector: Pat Quinn has a deal for you | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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City Hall's bill collector: Pat Quinn has a deal for you

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When the hard-boiled types in City Hall got wind of Pat Quinn's latest gig as director of the city's Revenue Department, they all agreed that something flashy was going to happen. And you can't blame them, really. The standard reaction to Pat Quinn is skepticism. It's practically contagious.

He is, remember, the most eager good-government beaver of them all. The guy who declared he would clean up state government by citizen petition. The Don Quixote who charged into the Cook County Board of (tax) Appeals vowing to rid it of waste and scandal.

Oh sure, his plans sound noble and sweet, but you've got to figure he has some ulterior motive, like a run for higher office. But as director of the Department of Revenue, he has the responsibility for collecting $600 million in various taxes, fines, and fees. It's a big job, but not one that will necessarily improve his reputation. You know how it goes: when money changes hands in City Hall, people sometimes get in trouble.

The Revenue Department was one of the first places FBI mole Michael Raymond invaded on his search for City Hall sleaze. A few bureaucrats toppled in that scandal, including Charles Sawyer, the former director, and John Adams, deputy director. Adams, in particular, was accused of accepting $10,000 of the mole's money in return for favors.

No, it just doesn't make sense. No sane reformer would invade that hornet's nest, unless he had some trick up his sleeve. And sure enough, two months or so into his job, here comes Pat Quinn, brass and drums booming louder than ever. He's been everywhere, or so it seems, TV, radio, newspapers, you name it, talking big about his hotshot idea for collecting parking fines. He called it an amnesty, a parking ticket amnesty. Call a phone number, (580-3400, that's 580-3400), and you got all your parking tickets at half cost. That's right, folks, you heard it right. Half off. The deal ended April 16.

To make sure you got the message, he hung posters, handed out fliers, even slapped banners on the sides of garbage trucks. He brought the Refrigerettes downtown to sing a song about the deal. Oh yes, as always, Quinn was willing to talk about the plan himself.

"In the last 12 years, I've done more radio talk shows than anyone in the state," Quinn says, with some pride. "I don't care how small the station is, I'll do it. You've got to get your message out." And just in case the story did not get enough play over the airwaves, Quinn personalized the appeal, calling print reporters himself.

"This guy Quinn, man, he's unbelievable," exclaims one slightly envious press aide for the city. "He's like Celozzi and Ettleson rolled into one. Wind him up and he does 20 minutes on parking tickets. It's too much." So, all right, Pat Quinn, confess. What's your real motive? No one really cares about parking tickets. What's in it for you?

"This is it. This is all I'm interested in for the moment," he says with his best deadpan sincerity, handling one interview, while an aide sitting behind him quietly works the phones, setting up others. "It's no different than when I got my start in Dan Walker's campaign. I love a challenge, that's all."

He was 22 years old and fresh out of Georgetown University by way of west-suburban Hinsdale when he signed on as a field organizer in Walker's 1972 gubernatorial campaign. He took a job with the newly elected governor, but soon longed for another crusade. So he and his brother, Tom, organized the Coalition for Political Honesty. They pledged to lead citizens in a charge to reform state government. The leaders of the political establishment rolled their eyes in disbelief over that one.

"We didn't know anything about media in those days," Quinn recalls. "But I knew how to organize. I knew that if you can get your idea on the air with a phone number, people will call and volunteer to pass your petitions. That's how I knew this parking ticket thing would take off. You just have got to get out there and hustle your bag of peanuts."

Quinn's bag of peanuts at the time was a state law that allowed legislators to collect their salaries up front before the legislative session even started. That really got young Quinn's lather up. Who knew if the legislators would finish their terms? They could die, get indicted, or run off to Florida with the secretary and still receive full pay.

For a while, however, he and his brother struggled. They got almost no press coverage and few petitions signed. Then someone (Quinn cannot remember who) got through to Wally Phillips. The WGN radio announcer took to the Quinn campaign in a big way, and suddenly people all over the state were outraged over the issue of advance pay. Quinn and his brother collected over 635,000 petitions and the law came a-tumbling down.

From there he moved on to battle the system that allowed three representatives for every state legislative district. The politicians wailed over that drive (after all, they stood to lose 59 seats -- one per district -- and many more patronage jobs).

But the question made the ballot and the voters passed it by a two-to-one margin, and that ended that.

"AP and UPI called that drive the story of the year," beams Quinn. The publicity helped him get elected to the scandal-riddled board of tax appeals. And from there he launched, last year, his unsuccessful campaign for state treasurer. "That was a three-way race: me, Jim Donnewald, and Jerry Cosentino," Quinn says. "I came in third, behind Cosentino [the winner] by about 20,000 votes. Had I been on the mayor's punch card, I would have won. Mayor Washington and I have been friends for a long time. But Donnewald, the incumbent, was backed by Alan Dixon and others. Washington stayed out of the race." Quinn shrugs. "I'm not bitter, that's politics."

Anyway, one thing led to another and, in the fall, Washington offered him the revenue job, which landed him in a cluttered and windowless office on the first floor of City Hall facing a big, fat, ugly mess. "We write four million parking tickets a year," Quinn says. "That's right. Four million. We're real good at writing parking tickets. But we're lousy at collecting them."

The problem, he says, is that the system makes no sense. Police write the tickets for the city, but violators pay the court. And then the city has to figure out some way of getting its money from the court. It's confusing, all right, which is why Quinn figures that about $70 million worth of parking tickets went uncollected over the last six years.

Washington attempted to sort out the mess when he first took office by hiring an outside firm to track down the scofflaws. That's how Datacom, a collection agency based in New Jersey, entered the city's lexicon, and that's how the mole scandal erupted in the first place. Datacom itself did nothing wrong. But they did charge a 25 percent commission on all the ticket payments they collected.

However, during the spirited bidding process to see who got the ticket-collection contract, Raymond was able to infiltrate an inner circle of Washington's aides, aldermanic allies, and advisers. Apparently, Raymond talked a big game, and dished out lots of cash in hopes of landing the contract for Systematic Recovery Service Inc., the New York-based firm he allegedly represented.

Things could have been worse for Washington when word of the scandal hit the front pages. After all, the contract award had apparently been on the up-and-up. Datacom got it; Systematic Recovery did not. Despite the resignations of top officials, the Revenue Department had, perhaps unknowingly, minimized the perception of impropriety by awarding the contract to the lowest bidder.

But then, last September, a Datacom official admitted he had offered a bribe to an official in New York City. As a result, the Revenue Department here exercised its option to void the contract. Suddenly, Washington, beginning a reelection campaign, was left high and dry, without anyone or anything to collect all these millions and millions of dollars for parking tickets.

Enter Quinn, with his noble vision and grandiose schemes. "Did I tell you about our phone lines?" he says. "We've got 15 lines. Yes, 15 operators. You get put on hold if you can't get through. They punch your name into a computer that tells you exactly how many tickets and fines you've racked up since 1980."

That information, Quinn hastens to add, is worth a thank-you in itself. Most people have no idea how much money they owe. "We're not just talking about individuals. We're also talking about insurance companies, businesses, banks, utilities. Hey, no one's an angel. We've got a very loose attitude about parking tickets. We figure, 'Who's watching?' and stuff them into the glove compartment and forget about them. Anyway, the operators tell you how much you owe and you make a pledge to pay your bill by May 1st."

The city received 137,000 pledges, Quinn says, worth about $6 million in fines. The department got at least one phone call every second. As for cash in hand, so far they've rolled up about $750,000.

"You have to have some inducement to get people interested. We have to let people know that we're here. The purpose of the amnesty is to give people an incentive to get them used to the idea of paying tickets." But that's not all. There's more. Quinn's got this whole rap worked out, an intricate philosophy, and it all has to do with parking tickets, democracy, and balancing the tax inequities between rich and poor.

"The amnesty should not be eternal. That's why we have the deadline. You see, if you want to get rid of the attitude in a democracy that you can scoff at certain laws, you have to enforce those laws. That means people have until April 16 to make their pledge, and until May 1st to pay their bill. After that, all people with ten or more outstanding parking tickets will get the boot."

That's right, the so-called Denver boot -- a heavy metal clamp that locks a car's tire in place. "I know, some people think the boot is rash. But you have to enforce the laws. Listen, I'm not saying that parking tickets are a mortal sin. We all make mistakes. But there's a reason we have parking laws. We live in a crowded city. It's congested downtown. If people parked wherever they wanted, it would be a zoo. People can't just park where they please.

"It's like what we tried to do at the board of tax appeals. There were inequities. Big developers and big lawyers had the clout. But who looked out for the small home owner?. Well, that's the way it is with parking tickets. If you're into populism, if you're into fighting unfair taxation, it's very important to go after tax evaders. See, that way the burden shifts. That way you make sure that everybody is responsible for paying society's bills. Did I tell you about our plan for lawyers?"

"Lawyers?"

"Yeah, lawyers." It's a new idea, he explains, and not all the wrinkles have been worked out. But the premise is in place. "All the law students who take the bar exam have to sign an affidavit, swearing that they have no outstanding parking tickets. It's a little-known provision, but it's there.

"Now, we've contacted the Illinois Supreme Court, so we're pretty sure about this. If you're a professional -- especially a lawyer, an officer of the court -- you have an obligation to uphold the laws of democracy. So, what we do is we match the computer tape of bar applicants to our computer tape of parking ticket scofflaws. We get a cross, And we send out letters. You know, 'Dear Johnny, we understand you've registered for the bar exam,' right? 'Well, Johnny, did you know that you have 20 tickets outstanding?' etc and so forth. You get the idea. If little Johnny wants to practice law, he has to pay his parking tickets.

"Eventually, our goal is to take parking tickets out of the court. What we'd do is set up a parking ticket referee. Anytime within 30 days of getting your ticket, you'd walk in for a hearing, argue your case. No more summonses, no excessive formality, no prosecutor, no judge. Just you and the referee. Get your case, if you're convicted, you pay. That's it.

"That's our goal for parking tickets for 1987. Get the tickets out of circuit court. The judges don't want the tickets. They don't need the headaches. They would probably thank us. We've got a bill pending in Springfield on that."

And here he sits back for a moment, obviously pleased. Oh sure, this is hot stuff. Twenty minutes, hell. Wind Pat Quinn up and he'll give you two hours on parking tickets.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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