By Robert Heuer
Robert Hickman was given wristband number 457 upon being admitted to the Du Page County Jail. It was January 13, 1998, and the new year's 457th inmate was hardly a typical prisoner.
Most of the inmates are minorities--poor men serving time or awaiting trial on charges ranging from drug possession to drunk driving, robbery to murder. Hickman's a white guy who's spent the better part of his life wearing expensive suits among the white-collar set.
A former marine, Hickman did his best to stand tall as he stepped inside that windowless jail in west suburban Wheaton.
"You look like you should be running this place," remarked one cell mate, a convicted burglar. "What you in for?"
Hickman replied in a soft drawl: "Good ol' Du Page County politics."
The longtime chief fund-raiser for former governor Jim Edgar, Hickman was rewarded in 1991 with the job of executive director at the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. Three years later he was forced to resign, after it was revealed ISTHA had awarded contracts to a company employing his son.
At the time of Hickman's departure, state police had launched an investigation into a multimillion-dollar land sale by the tollway. Hickman was later indicted for allegedly skimming a $240,000 brokerage fee from that deal. The commission was paid primarily to Joseph Kotlarz, a real estate attorney and onetime northwest-side alderman who had gone on to become an Illinois state representative. Hickman was never accused of personally profiting from the bargain, though both he and Kotlarz were eventually found guilty of theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft. Hickman also was convicted of official misconduct.
Over a three-year period Hickman had awarded millions of dollars in contracts to clients represented by Kotlarz. That was perfectly legal--Hickman was ISTHA's equivalent of a chief operating officer, reporting to a nine-person board of directors. He acted illegally, prosecutors charged, while expediting the $4.04 million sale of a 12-acre strip in unincorporated Du Page County to Waste Management Inc. The company had hired Kotlarz to set up the deal. According to Du Page assistant state's attorney Neal Thompson, Hickman was "Mr. Inside" to Kotlarz's "Mr. Outside," and the $240,000 commission was taken without the knowledge of either the buyer or the ISTHA board. The fee went to Eagle Realty, a licensed real estate broker in Arlington Heights, which took $50,000 before passing along the remaining $190,000 to Kotlarz.
The two-and-a-half-week trial, in the spring of 1997, provided a first-ever glimpse at the inner workings of the powerful ISTHA. Prosecutors called 20 witnesses, including top officials from the Du Page County Republican Party. But their testimony was often confusing and sometimes contradictory. Most of the witnesses danced around the fact that awarding contracts to the politically connected is normal tollway business.
Kotlarz's attorney, David Stetler, complained that many of the prosecution's witnesses "couldn't keep their lies straight," and even assistant state's attorney Thompson conceded it was an "understatement" to describe some of them as "very uncomfortable witnesses . . . with a great deal of difficulty remembering many things." But Thompson saw the reason: "It was a dirty deal from day one, and everybody knew it."
If everybody knew about it, defense attorneys argued, there was no theft or deception. Hickman and Kotlarz were so confident of acquittal they agreed to be tried together as a way to hold down their legal costs. Neither took the stand; instead both relied on testimony they said showed the tollway board and Waste Management always knew about the commission paid to Kotlarz, who even declared it on his income taxes. Nobody denied that ISTHA got a good deal: Hickman sold the land for nearly twice its original appraisal.
Siding with the prosecution, Du Page County circuit judge Ronald Mehling ruled that Hickman and Kotlarz had used a "shell game" to create the $240,000 commission. On November 4, 1997, he sentenced the pair to six months in the Du Page County Jail and ordered them to complete 400 hours of community service.
"Kotlarz, Hickman get slap on wrist" read a front-page headline in the next morning's Tribune. "A double standard?" asked a Sun-Times editorial, noting that white politicians convicted of wrongdoing are treated more favorably than minorities; for example, former alderman Ambrosio Medrano had been sentenced to 30 months after taking a $31,000 bribe in the federal "Silver Shovel" sting operation, while former alderman Jesse Evans got 41 months for taking a $7,300 bribe. Kotlarz and Hickman were found guilty of stealing close to a quarter of a million dollars. Their case's outcome, the editorial concluded, left "many still outraged."
Outrage had been the public posture of tollway officials ever since Hickman tendered his resignation. The scandal signaled a new beginning, they said, a housecleaning of old practices. During the trial even Neal Thompson, the government's lawyer, conceded that the toll authority was "absolutely rife with influence peddling." Last fall the agency's spokesman told me the Hickman era was "ancient history."
For the past seven years, I've studied ISTHA--first as a journalist, then from 1995 to '98 as a paid consultant for the watchdog Environmental Law and Policy Center, which has opposed the construction of new toll roads. I've covered hearings, examined plans, rooted through files, organized community meetings, pitched stories to reporters, and gotten to know the tollway's top officials--and I have yet to detect any substantive changes in how the authority conducts business. Clearly Hickman and Kotlarz engaged in questionable practices, and at least one judge found these practices illegal. But their unprecedented trial revealed they didn't act too differently from other political insiders who had milked this state-sanctioned cash cow. Many of these same interests continue to lay claim to the $1 million in tolls forked over each workday.
Three months ago, the Illinois Supreme Court granted Kotlarz the right to appeal his guilty verdict. His attorneys argued the conviction misused the state's "theft by deception" statute because there was no victim--Waste Management knowingly retained Kotlarz not for his real estate expertise but for his influence with Hickman.
Prosecutor Neal Thompson told me he doubted Kotlarz's conviction would be overturned. But he predicted Hickman would now get the same chance to appeal for a new trial.
When Hickman heard Thompson's opinion, he was pleased, though hardly ecstatic. After a six-year ordeal costing more than $200,000 in legal fees, he remained wary. At 61 years old, he knew he'd never regain his political clout or recoup his life savings. Yet if he could overturn his felony conviction, he could maybe start collecting his $30,000-a-year pension and remove some of the tarnish on his name. This time, he told me, he was ready for a fight: "If I manage to get this case back to a Du Page County courtroom and I again make the mistake of not taking the witness stand, shoot me."
Two days later, Hickman got a call from his attorney: there would be no new trial. He wouldn't get another chance to tell his side of the story.
I first met Hickman in December 1993. An assignment for Illinois Issues magazine led to an interview with the executive director at ISTHA's new headquarters in west suburban Downers Grove.
Ground had been broken for the headquarters during the fourth term of Governor James R. Thompson, and the building was finally completed in 1992 at a cost of $25.6 million under Hickman's direction. A newly constructed street was named Authority Drive, and the building's address was listed as One Authority Drive. Looking back, this "ego address" was "a little pompous," acknowledges a spokesman for ISTHA, which recently decided to change the address to the less self-important 2700 W. Ogden. The new designation also makes the building easier to find: the most direct route from downtown is driving 17 miles southwest on Ogden, the toll-free U.S. 34.
ISTHA headquarters is situated close to where the North-South Tollway (I-355) meets the East-West Tollway (I-88). The Alter Group, a developer of an adjacent office complex, calls this the very "epicenter of Du Page County." ISTHA headquarters is set back about an eighth of a mile from the road, right at the I-355 interchange with Ogden. At first glance, the four-story structure resembles countless steel-and-glass office buildings that have sprouted up along suburban tollway corridors in recent decades. Its prefabricated concrete facade is lined with rows of dark green windows that look like crisp dollar bills standing at attention. The vast sloping lawn is littered with goose crap, but no one would notice: visitors drive straight into the parking lot.
The headquarters' opulent interior is also reminiscent of a private corporation. To get past the outer foyer, guests have to ask the receptionist for an escort. And once inside the second set of glass doors, visitors are dwarfed by an atrium so immense it could house another building. Climbing up the staircase that juts through the middle of this empty shell, I was led into the spacious, dimly lit office of the executive director.
Hickman was friendly, sitting erect behind a big wooden desk that was impeccably polished and devoid of clutter. There was a telephone, a brass lamp, and a miniature statue of a horse with a golf bag holding a collection of calling cards. Perched next to Hickman's nameplate was a Christmas photo of Jim Edgar and his family.
A chain-smoker with the ashy complexion of wet concrete, Hickman swiveled confidently in a plush leather chair, talking for over three hours. Enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke, he acted like he had all the time in the world, obviously enjoying life at the top of this $350-million-a-year patronage empire.
His secretary buzzed periodically to say his staff was waiting. After one interruption, he turned to me, smiled, and said: "I like to keep them on their toes." Perhaps she was offering Hickman an escape hatch, but he didn't need one. The tollway boss was a charmer, and he obviously wanted to promote the agency's grand plans. Several months earlier, the Illinois General Assembly had given ISTHA the green light to build 75 miles of new toll roads on the outskirts of metropolitan Chicago--a 25 percent expansion of the 274-mile tollway system.
Hickman bluntly explained why ISTHA is a preferred avenue for major road construction projects, rather than the Illinois Department of Transportation. "We don't have all that bureaucratic nonsense." Indeed, ISTHA was set up to function more like an efficient business than a plodding government agency. Toll roads are privately funded through revenue bonds paid off with tolls, or "user fees." While tax-supported agencies help lay the groundwork for these roads, no federal or state tax dollars are spent by ISTHA in its day-to-day operations, so it avoids the budgetary and oversight constraints affecting other public agencies. In fact, it's operated in such secrecy that even its acronym remains outside the public's consciousness.
ISTHA's predecessor, the Illinois State Toll Highway Commission, was created by the General Assembly in 1953 to carry out big road projects, starting with the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) and the Northwest Tollway (I-90). When President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed an interstate highway system, he left it up to the states to decide whether these limited-access roads would be supported by tolls or taxes. In Illinois the toll-supported option was touted as an opportunity to relieve the burden on state taxpayers. Forty years ago, studies indicated that 80 percent of the toll roads' users would be out-of-state travelers. Today 80 percent are commuters.
Former Illinois governor William Stratton told me politicians were impressed by the success of Robert Moses, who was then inventing a fourth branch of government in New York known as the "Public Authority," which oversaw $27 billion in public works, including roads, bridges, parks, and tunnels. In Illinois, tollways were sold to the public with the promise that the roads would eventually become free--and maintained through gas taxes--once the construction bonds were paid off.
The General Assembly gave the governor the power of eminent domain to condemn private property, the authority to raise money by issuing bonds, and an exemption from civil service hiring rules. Two years later the Republican Stratton's tollway commission encountered political problems. Lacking their own seat at this patronage table, Democrats made an issue of constituent complaints over tollway routes and land condemnations. In A Political Passage, a biography of Stratton, author David Kenney writes that in April 1955 "it was alleged... Stratton's old friend and one-time colleague in Congress, Evan Howell, chairman of the Toll Highway Commission by the governor's appointment, had engaged in 'drunken abuse' of Democratic legislators who wished to investigate the commission. It was said that he had threatened certain persons, including [state] Representative Paul Powell, with political reprisals, in the dining room of Springfield's St. Nicholas Hotel. Powell was not one to take such actions lightly, and a formal investigation was launched in the House. Of special concern was the National Turnpike Association, which Howell had organized and of which he was president. It solicited membership fees of one thousand dollars from public officials and from bankers and contractors who might wish to do business with the commission." Howell resigned, and Stratton got the message.
Before adjourning, lawmakers approved another bond issue to pay for expressway construction in Cook County--but thanks to the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, federal money paid for the Edens, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Dan Ryan. "Democrats in the General Assembly felt that if a Republican administration was to have nearly one-half billion dollars for building toll roads, with all that that construction meant in patronage and in public benefit, then a Cook County Democratic highway department should also have the funds for major road building," writes Kenney. While signing the Cook County bill into law, Stratton told the Democrats, "I assume...you will be too busy building expressways to be troublesome to my toll road."
How Stratton's $431,000,000 road would affect regional growth patterns was clearly not a major consideration. Forty years later, Hickman sat behind his desk at One Authority Drive speculating on the mind-set of his predecessors. "I think the old-timers' attitude was that nobody cared about the tollway," he said, noting that aerial photographs of eastern Du Page County once showed the Tri-State's interchange with the East-West Tollway surrounded by farmland. "Who cared then about the suburbs? The attitude must have been 'Let 'em build a toll road. Nobody's going to use it.'"
On August 20, 1958, Stratton dedicated the first leg of what was then planned to be a 187-mile system--the 76-mile Northwest Tollway (I-90), from O'Hare Airport to South Beloit at the Wisconsin border, just beyond Rockford. The toll road was "the largest public works program in the history of the state," Stratton said, completed within two years of groundbreaking.
The Illinois State Toll Highway Commission was temporarily headquartered downtown at the Civic Opera House. After the first toll roads were completed in 1959, the commission moved to a new building on Midwest Road in Oak Brook. The western suburbs became the geographic center of the tollway system and home to most of the employees in what seemed destined from the start to evolve into a Du Page County-controlled political machine.
The power of this machine may not have been fully evident when state politicians made their original promise to shut down the tollways once the first construction bonds had expired. In the early 60s commission officials were citing the distant day of 1980, when the debt would be paid and the tollways folded into the state highway system. But the politicians soon realized they'd invented a money gusher--keeping tollbooths in place had become essential. Toll collection was sure money and thus could serve as a source of collateral to keep the bond rating low, allowing the agency to readily borrow more money--serving the needs of motorists for certain, but also the needs of empire builders who were dispensing tollway jobs and contracts.
On October 26, 1967, lawmakers broke their promise to the public, transforming the toll commission into the more autonomous ISTHA and paving the way for the toll roads to become a permanent fixture. Citizens don't vote for any of the nine members on the board; they're all appointed by the governor and approved by the state senate. Aside from approving these appointments, the General Assembly authorizes expansions but essentially leaves the authority to operate as it pleases.
The state's auditor general conducts an annual review of ISTHA's accounting practices, though this disinterested audit has little or no effect. Even if the review is critical, the legislature is under no obligation to act on it. In 1997, three years into the post-Hickman era, the annual report painted a typically unflattering portrait of the agency--absentee employees were routinely paid, and staffers didn't bother to use a new $336,000 computerized payroll system, often choosing to work out their figures on paper instead. A Tribune headline said it all: "Toll agency audit sings same old song."
Six years earlier, when Hickman became executive director, his first order of business was figuring out how the bond industry works. Help came from Gayle Franzen, who, like Hickman, had been a major gubernatorial fund-raiser before being named head of ISTHA. In the early 80s, Franzen pushed through I-355 by getting the General Assembly to change the designation of the Du Page County project from a freeway to a toll road. Statutes affecting ISTHA were also changed so revenue from existing toll roads could be used to finance the construction of new ones. In 1984 Franzen left ISTHA to take a job as a representative of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, the New York investment banking firm. His replacement was Thomas Morsch, who had previously succeeded him as head of Citizens for Thompson. Morsch reported to a board packed with other Thompson fund-raisers. Two years later this ISTHA board sent a multimillion-dollar bond deal to Franzen's employer. Privately Hickman had been anticipating a similar career path--if he played his cards right.
Franzen's legacy--the three-year-old I-355--created enough bond indebtedness to keep ISTHA running into the 21st century. In 1989 Franzen had been appointed by Thompson to chair the Regional Transportation Authority--where he oversaw the CTA, Metra, and Pace--but all the while he kept his day job, drumming up business for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. Under Hickman's leadership, the ISTHA board hired Franzen to arrange $846.9 million more in financing. As the primary underwriter, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette collected the lion's share of an estimated $7.5 million in fees. The first bond offering--$459.6 million in 1992--paid for improvements to the Tri-State. The second--$387.3 million in 1993--refinanced existing bonds to take advantage of lower interest rates. Hickman would later recall with pride that ISTHA saved $30 million from the refinancing, but, as a state treasurer's report showed, a select group of politically connected lawyers and financial advisers snatched up $4,250,950 in fees. More than a few crumbs went to Democrats.
A Tribune article reported that in 1992 alone "the state and its authorities issued a record $3.8 billion in bonds, generating some $38 million in fees, [not including] nearly $1 billion in bonds sold...to pay for the expansion of McCormick Place. The bond business is equally important to politicians, who use industry contributions to help pay for the TV blitzes that propel them into office....Franzen's name has become almost synonymous with the concept of pinstriped patronage since he left state government in 1984....His ability to win state business has made him a valued employee of Wall Street."
On that first visit to One Authority Drive, I asked Hickman why he'd worked with Franzen, who was then about to resign from the RTA to run for chairman of the Du Page County Board as an apparent stepping-stone to statewide office. Hickman shrugged. "You work with who you know."
The millions gained through his first bond offering were quickly dispensed to an array of private interests who employed 6,000 people to carry out the two-year Tri-State project. The big money went to road builders, who won their contracts on a sealed-bid basis, while smaller sums were distributed through no-bid contracts to law firms, banks, insurance brokers, and engineering firms. Toll payers also got something out of the Tri-State deal: new lanes were added between 75th Street and O'Hare, and 17 bridges were rebuilt.
Hickman was pleased to say the job was done on time and under budget. He saw this experience as a perfect primer for an even bigger undertaking. In the summer of 1993 the General Assembly gave ISTHA authority to issue $2.4 billion in new bonds.
In 1986, before construction on I-355 began, the debt service on the agency's bonds had sunk to as low as 12.61 percent of its revenue. Hickman said ISTHA now aimed to meet bond-industry goals of dedicating nearly 40 percent of its revenue to pay off bonds--it was embarking on a road-building program that could easily last two decades.
He gave me a video that ISTHA had produced for bond-industry audiences. It touted the tollway system as "the single most important factor in the economic development of Chicago's collar counties" over the last 40 years. By making the hinterlands accessible, the roads themselves became magnets for billions of dollars in residential, commercial, and industrial investment. And as a result, power in the General Assembly tilted toward the tollway rich. The tollway hungry naturally wanted in on the action. New roads were intended to feed real estate development, the growth of outlying suburbs, and the coffers of reelection campaigns.
Hickman downplayed his own role as boss of the region's master builder, referring to himself as "a little Joe Mope." Still, he exuded an air of cocky self-assuredness. He recalled the end of the last legislative session. "I got a phone call, and instead of three roads to build they were giving me four roads. The General Assembly is..." His voice trailed off.
"In my pocket," I blurted out.
He grinned. That big desk in his third-floor office at One Authority Drive seemed a more apt symbol of clout than the fifth floor of City Hall.
Outside his window was the beachhead for the next crusade: I-355. The 17.4 mile stretch of concrete and asphalt travels north and south through the middle of Du Page County. ISTHA now planned to quadruple its length. A southern extension would trek 30-some miles into Will County, with one leg reaching from Bolingbrook to New Lenox and a second leg looping southeast toward the villages of Monee and Peotone, the site of the proposed regional airport. The northern branch, popularly known as the Route 53 extension, would cut a 42-mile path through Lake County to Grayslake, where one leg would curve east to the Tri-State Tollway and another would head west through McHenry County toward Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. A spokesman for house speaker Michael Madigan told me state senate president James "Pate" Philip was worried the Will County roads would enhance the Democratic base in Joliet, so he added the McHenry leg, "a Republican road." If the I-355 expansion is ever completed, it will have established a new outer beltway beyond the Tri-State.
I told Hickman about a conversation I'd had with a first-term legislator. The new lawmaker was astonished that his colleagues would approve in an end-of-the-session slam dunk a plan to literally cast in concrete the future shape of the region. There was no semblance of debate, he said, just some vague discussion about where to put "the golden goose." He eventually figured out the term was code for tollway interchanges--the golden goose lays golden eggs by sending the value of surrounding real estate through the roof.
"To be honest, the General Assembly really doesn't know what we do," Hickman said impatiently. "Everybody wants a ramp to his grocery store or golf course. But legislators have no say-so, just IDOT and me. And this agency has a final say-so, because we build, maintain, and pay for the road."
He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out the bylaws for the tollway advisory committee. They hadn't been updated since ISTHA moved to Downers Grove 18 months earlier, but that didn't matter: the committee, composed of General Assembly members and their friends, didn't meet. Hickman said the tollway's watchdog served no real purpose. "When people get appointed they call and want to know one thing--when do they get the free pass."
ISTHA was at the height of its powers, comfortably insulated from the vaguest threat of public scrutiny. This isolation was attractive to holders of the tollway's bonds--mostly corporations, pension funds, and wealthy individuals who paid no federal income taxes on their long-term, low-interest returns. The tollway enjoyed a stellar bond rating. It was always able to borrow more because, as an ISTHA official boasted to the trade magazine Bond Buyer in 1992, tolls could be increased without approval from either the General Assembly or the governor.
Hickman was launching a plan to spend as much as the city of Chicago's annual budget (then about $3 billion) with no one to answer to but these bondholders, whose only real concern was keeping the tolls coming in. Then on September 17, 1993, the first shoe dropped. The Tribune carried a page-one story: "State pact may pay off for Edgar pals." Hickman was cited as one of four insiders who stood to profit as stockholders in a Las Vegas company that had just landed a $10 million contract to supply mail-order prescription drugs to retired state employees. Medi-Mail Inc.'s main stockholder was Edward Heil, a top Edgar contributor and president of a construction company that had helped to build the I-355 toll road. Another shareholder was Norma Jann, whom Edgar had appointed a judge in the Illinois Court of Claims. Jann's husband, Irwin, was a Chicago attorney, Medi-Mail consultant, and major Edgar contributor. Then there was Edward Hanley Jr., whose brother was appointed to the ISTHA board by Edgar and whose father then headed the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. The Tribune reported, "The state's pact with Medi-Mail is among dozens that have been completed in recent years involving political insiders as contracts have come to replace jobs in a new era of political patronage."
Hickman told me the same thing he'd told other reporters: His old friend Sid Luckman, the former Chicago Bear, encouraged him to buy the stock. And even though everything was legal, he'd sold his 19,000 shares to avoid any appearance of impropriety. The Medi-Mail scandal was in the news for a few days, and then it vanished. In its aftermath, however, the governor's longtime confidant had become fair game for the press.
Several days before our first interview, Sun-Times gossip columnist Michael Sneed had speculated that Hickman might leave the tollway to run Edgar's reelection campaign. From my vantage point, this wheeler-dealer could accomplish as much by working the phone in Downers Grove. The link between road building and political war chests was no secret: in 1988 it was reported that 22 of the 28 engineering firms working on I-355 had contributed to Governor Thompson's reelection campaign.
Hickman had no intention of resigning. He attributed his troubles to "petty in-house jealousies," implying that a top Edgar administration official had planted the press attacks. Three months later Hickman would be gone, just hours after Edgar handily won his last Republican primary. Only gradually would Hickman discover his real enemies were under his own roof in Du Page County.
"Jim Edgar is my friend and my boss," Hickman said while sitting behind his desk at One Authority Drive. The tollway boss had figured the popular first-term governor would be his protector. After all, he'd paved Edgar's road to the governor's mansion, personally raising $11 million of the $12 million that bought victory in the 1990 gubernatorial election. "Jim's an easy selling tool," Hickman explained. "He's not a lawyer and not a political so-called hack who is in government for the money."
Their relationship dated back two decades. In 1972 Hickman was a big fish in the small pond of Charleston, the central Illinois town where Edgar grew up. He was Charleston's mayor as well as the local Ford dealer and president of the country club and chamber of commerce. Fred Edgar, a member of the park district board, wanted a favor: talk to my kid brother.
Jim Edgar wanted to get into politics, a dream that began in grammar school. After graduating from Charleston's own Eastern Illinois University, he went to nearby Springfield to serve an internship for Illinois senate president Russell Arrington, and the experience confirmed his desire to go into politics. At age 26, the future governor was plotting his first bid for public office. But getting to Springfield meant beating Republican state representative Max Coffey. To knock off the popular incumbent, Edgar needed to build a power base, starting with the mayor of his hometown.
A native of Terre Haute, Indiana, Hickman was one of three brothers. His father was a factory worker, his mother a homemaker. He was a standout basketball player in high school and won a scholarship to the University of Kansas. As a freshman, he watched from the bench as Wilt Chamberlain led the Jayhawks to a second-place finish in the 1957 NCAA tournament. Over the next three years Hickman was a starting guard for less illustrious teams. When his pro career got no further than a tryout with the Saint Louis Hawks, he returned home and found a job selling cars at a Ford dealership. He became sales manager and eventually bought his own dealership across the border in Charleston. He got married, had two children, and became active in the community.
Hickman offered to help Jim Edgar. He had the juice to entice bankers, lawyers, and anyone with a bit of influence to come by his house and open their wallets--so he hosted the very first fund-raiser of Edgar's career. But Edgar lost the race and went $10,000 into debt. "Jim thought this was the disaster of the world," Hickman recalls with a chuckle. Saddled with a seemingly insurmountable debt, Edgar vowed never to run for public office again.
The future governor moved to Colorado, and Hickman got better acquainted with Coffey, helping him finance a successful bid for state senator. Lured by the vacated house seat, Edgar returned home and, with Hickman's help, was elected in 1976. Several years later, the second-term representative quit to take a job as Governor Thompson's legislative liaison. In 1981, Edgar was appointed secretary of state, after Alan Dixon left that job to become a U.S. senator.
Edgar asked Hickman to join his inaugural committee. The call went to Salem, where Hickman had bought a second car dealership. Hickman organized an Edgar fund-raiser at the home of a Salem businessman. The admission fee was $250--an unheard-of price for this small downstate town. The event raised $25,000, creating a financial base for the ambitious young secretary of state.
Hickman began to see Edgar as a ticket to bigger and better things. Recession hit in 1979, and Hickman had to close both of his car dealerships. Following a divorce, he went to work in the Springfield office of the secretary of state in 1982. On the side, he honed his skills as a fund-raiser, drumming up $2.5 million to finance Edgar's first statewide campaign.
The secretary of state's office has always been considered a stepping-stone for rising political stars--the job puts the politician's name on every driver's license. But it's never been a gold mine for campaign contributions. The secretary of state doesn't build roads or issue bonds; the only thing he makes is license plates. So Hickman turned his attention to car dealerships. Not only was he familiar with the players--the secretary of state regulates car dealerships.
During the 1982 campaign, Hickman recalls, he was introduced to the personal nature of government finances. He got a call from a Chicago banker. "He told me, 'Here's the deal--I'll give you a hundred grand, and I want all the secretary of state's deposits.' I said to him, 'Are you fucking crazy? First of all, I don't want your money. And second of all, I don't even know you.'"
Edgar trounced treasurer Jerry Cosentino in 1982 and became known as a pol with promise. Four years later, Hickman chaired a reelection bid that saw Edgar's war chest mushroom to $4 million.
During the 1986 campaign, Hickman met Joseph Kotlarz. The 30-year-old northwest-side alderman proved helpful to the downstater unfamiliar with Chicago. After police towed away a state-owned truck parked in front of the State of Illinois Building, Hickman called Kotlarz. The truck contained $10 million in payroll checks for state employees, and Hickman says he threatened to start hauling in Chicago police cars that weren't in compliance with state air pollution standards. Kotlarz helped get the truck back within half an hour.
Following Edgar's second statewide election, Hickman was named assistant secretary of state, overseeing the driver's license facilities of northeastern Illinois. Moving from Springfield into a condo on McClurg Court, he worked downtown and met wealthy businessmen who didn't know Edgar. With a little prodding, many of these businessmen had no problem writing a check to advance the career of an up-and-coming politician.
As Edgar's rising stature attracted a pack of aspiring bootlickers, Hickman remained a trusted adviser. In the mid-80s, Edgar became an outspoken proponent for the passage of more stringent laws against drunk driving. Across the country, elected officials were jumping on the bandwagon for this wildly popular position. But until the liquor industry figured out that such legislation was inevitable and therefore something to champion, the names of crusaders like Edgar were dirt. Hickman says many of Edgar's own staffers were afraid to tell that to the secretary of state as he prepared to run for governor. "He knew they were jagging him, so he'd ask me what was really going on. I told him the truth: 'Jim, these downstate liquor people hate your guts because they think you're hurting their business. Their delivery trucks have the name Edgar with a slash through it. I've been to Carbondale and Marion, and you're not listening to the same people. Don't count on them to support you.'"
In 1988 Hickman left his job at the secretary of state's office to become Edgar's full-time fund-raiser. He wanted to work on commission (and at 10 percent would have grossed $1.2 million during the 1990 campaign for governor), but Edgar refused. Citizens for Jim Edgar paid Hickman the same $75,000 salary he'd received from the state (though without the pension). He oversaw a fund-raising committee with four cochairs, all top officials at major corporations, like William Weiss at Ameritech and Vernon Loucks of Baxter International. Their names lent a blue-chip endorsement to Edgar's candidacy. Hickman says he asked each of the cochairs to bring in $100,000 for a $1 million fund-raiser attended by President George Bush. The cochairs in turn introduced Hickman to potential contributors in their circles of influence.
More than two years later, after Edgar squeaked past attorney general Neil Hartigan in the governor's race, Hickman could have had almost any job he wanted. He thought about becoming the secretary of IDOT, overseeing a huge bureaucracy and a multibillion-dollar budget. But he saw too many interests vying for a taste of this tax-funded agency's revenue stream, and its projects were too dependent on the vagaries of politics. The tollway authority, by contrast, seemed like heaven--Hickman figured he already had the business skills. "Jim wanted me to have the tollway job so that I would be up in Chicago where I had a lot of contacts. Jim Thompson's circle was corporate lawyers; Edgar always relied more on contributions from the businessmen."
Citizens for Edgar had found a ready supply of cash from individuals and companies wanting to do business with the state. The paybacks would soon follow. In fiscal year 1992, Edgar campaign donors won about $1.4 billion of the $4.4 billion in contracts the state awarded to private individuals and firms, reported Springfield's State Journal-Register. According to data from the Illinois comptroller and the state board of elections, road builders led the way. In 1992, ISTHA and IDOT gave out $2.6 billion in contracts, and about half of that business went to Edgar campaign contributors.
The incoming tollway boss threw one last fund-raiser for the new governor. Throughout his career, Hickman had hosted 113 such affairs. His key to success was simple: put out a good spread and never have a cash bar. The booze always flowed freely-- even after Edgar's handlers packaged their candidate as a teetotaling Boy Scout. A lavish celebration in an Oakbrook Terrace office tower attracted droves of aspiring contractors.
Hickman had a full plate running ISTHA. First, he had to get up to speed on the arcane world of bond financing. He already had some idea of how lucrative that industry could be. As mayor of Charleston, he oversaw a $2.5 million bond offering to finance a small water reservoir. When the Chicago bank underwriting the bonds insisted on closing the deal on a Friday, Hickman recalls, he became suspicious. He says he took $600 from village coffers to rent a small plane, flew to Meigs Field, picked up the check, and returned home to deposit the money before the weekend. As a result, come Monday, Charleston collected an additional $8,000 in interest.
That $8,000 would be chump change at ISTHA, where a variety of interests vied for power. Hickman had to juggle the often conflicting agendas of his nine-member board of directors. At least he was acquainted with the majority: Edgar named five new members whose transportation expertise was, for the most part, related to their ability to drive a car to fund-raisers. Three new board appointees were from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, Rockford-based manufacturer Woodward Governor Company, and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union--all members of the Citizens for Edgar $100,000 club.
Then there was the new headquarters being built in Downers Grove. Looking over the project, Hickman was appalled by the expenses, but it was tough to undercut plans made by others or to bring down costs when that had never been an issue before. The price tag for the board's conference table was $80,000. Hickman says he ordered the agency's in-house carpenters to build one instead: that table cost $20,000.
He set up a real estate department to determine what exactly ISTHA owned. The agency had a lot of land, acquired mainly through condemnation, and paid no taxes on it. After doing an inventory, the tollway contacted tenants like a Du Page County bar owner who owed $28,000 in back rent. The bar owner claimed the tollway had never asked for money. Hickman didn't suspect corruption: ISTHA simply didn't know what it had. "Money was laying all over the place," he says. Some properties lay fallow near tollway interchanges, biding their time. Most of the land was of value only to surrounding owners.
In Hickman's first year at the helm, ISTHA sold $442,000 of its surplus landholdings--more than three times the amount sold in the previous four years combined. In his second year, revenue from land sales increased tenfold to $4,195,000. The main reason was the $3.8 million that came from the sale of that 12-acre parcel abutting I-88. The land was next to the headquarters of Waste Management Inc., which employed 2,500 people in several buildings along Butterfield Road. Waste Management had wanted to buy the land since the late 80s but had gotten nowhere with tollway officials, who had considered the site first for an oasis on the East-West Tollway and then as a possible spot for a new headquarters. The agency eventually decided to head about five miles west, planting its new headquarters at the sprawling cloverleaf where I-88 meets I-355, the corridor of the future. When Hickman took over ISTHA, he recognized that the 12-acre parcel served no purpose. He says Pate Philip's younger brother Arthur, who had been appointed to the tollway board in 1985 by James Thompson, had proposed building a high-rise there. "I kept having to remind him that bond indentures prohibit the tollway from being in the real estate development business."
So after Kotlarz approached him as a representative for Waste Management, Hickman entered into negotiations for a sale. But the company didn't want to buy the 12-acre site; it only wanted to acquire an easement so it could build a road that would connect the structures on its growing corporate campus. Hickman says he told Waste Management officials too the tollway wasn't in the real estate business. Several appraisals valued the land at between $1 and $2 million. Hickman wasn't in a hurry: he recognized the land was of value to only one buyer. After he told Waste Management the appraisals were too low, the price nearly doubled.
In our first conversation in 1993, the Waste Management deal came up briefly. "You don't want to be in the real estate business, but we have no choice," Hickman said. "We have this piece of land that we bought in the 1970s for $300,000 that we sold last year." His voice grew soft, and his eyes twinkled. "I hate to tell you about the money, because you'll think the tollway gigged 'em."
A couple weeks later, Hickman traveled to Florida to attend the annual convention of the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association. While he was out of town, ISTHA board chairman J.P. "Jack" Garrow made an appointment to give state police documents on the Waste Management land deal. The transaction had been completed in May 1992, more than a year and a half before Garrow and ISTHA deputy legal counsel Robert Douglas went to the police. Douglas claimed he'd only recently discovered that Hickman had inserted a commission into the transaction. He said he was first told about it in August 1993 by ISTHA attorney Paul Olszewski.
In our subsequent conversations, Hickman showed no sign of his troubles. I phoned several times to clarify points for the Illinois Issues article as well as to conduct two brief interviews for stories I wrote for Crain's Chicago Business. He always sounded confident and upbeat, though it was increasingly obvious he faced larger problems than "petty in-house jealousies." First came the headlines involving the Medi-Mail stock deal. Then came a revelation that he regularly used the tollway's helicopter to visit a girlfriend in Springfield. The trail of bad press became an embarrassment for Edgar. In the final days of the GOP primary in March 1994, the Daily Herald reported that the ISTHA board had awarded $2.7 million in engineering contracts to a downstate firm without knowing that it employed Hickman's son. For the first time, Hickman didn't return my phone calls.
"Embattled director expected to quit toll highway authority" read the headline of my story published in Crain's Chicago Business on March 21, 1994. I got my tip from a source who was close to Edgar staffers. He said there was also pressure coming from a faction on the tollway board aligned with Pate Philip. Chairman Jack Garrow, who served on the Du Page County Republican Central Committee, could barely contain his anger when telling me over the phone that Hickman "has to take the consequences of his behavior." Mark Gordon, then Philip's media spokesman, was more blunt: "Pate wants the guy shitcanned." In my Crain's story, I quoted state treasurer Pat Quinn, who was then mounting a losing bid as the Democratic candidate for secretary of state--he said Hickman's "poor judgment and imprudent expenditures" were drawing attention to the tollway at a time when its road-building plans ensured it would become the "primary dispenser of pinstripe patronage for the rest of the decade."
Edgar managed to sweep away the mess long before that fall's gubernatorial election, when Democrat Dawn Clark Netsch tried to make an issue of what she called a "rogue bureaucracy."
"Tollway reform seen as Hickman era comes to end" was the headline of a Tribune story on May 4, 1994. "As Gov. Jim Edgar put Ralph Wehner in the driver's seat at the Illinois Toll Highway Authority, he signaled a shift in emphasis from politics to professionalism....Hickman became an embarrassment because of a particularly blatant pattern of favoritism in awarding business....'You don't hire your kids,' said a top Edgar administration official....Hickman's tenure there was dogged by controversy over the tollway's spending habits, his personal investments and the manner in which contracts were being awarded."
At a news conference Edgar hailed highway engineer Ralph Wehner as a "transportation professional" with 30 years' experience in state government. When a reporter later asked why his initial choice hadn't been a "transportation professional," the governor didn't respond.
Shortly after Wehner's appointment, I drove out to One Authority Drive to interview the new executive director. It was my first glimpse inside that third-floor office since Hickman's departure. The only change I noticed was that the furniture had been moved around. Hickman's desk had faced west, about 20 feet from a bank of windows overlooking I-355. Wehner had placed the desk next to another bank of windows--he now faced in the direction of where ISTHA was itching to break ground for the first leg of the I-355 extension, the road to Peotone. Wehner, a gruff, bald-headed bureaucrat, had a ready answer when I asked why the governor had ended the tradition of putting a campaign fund-raiser in charge of ISTHA. Wehner declared he had "broken the mold at the tollway--I am not a procurer of campaign funds."
In his final meeting with Edgar, Hickman says he was told to lay low for a while until the storm blew over. He could still do business with the state--he remained well positioned for success.
Renting office space downtown, Hickman became a consultant. Within weeks of his resignation from the tollway, he landed a contract from a Dallas-based gaming company to lobby for riverboat ports in central Illinois. He encouraged the Danville and Decatur city councils to seek casino licenses and then to hire the company he represented to run their boats. In his first year as an influence peddler, Hickman appeared certain to exceed his $90,000 annual salary as ISTHA executive director.
But then in February 1995 a Du Page County grand jury indicted Hickman and Kotlarz. The casino company canceled its contract as Hickman's political capital vanished overnight. His lawyer advised him to go to the Du Page County Jail and post bond on a Sunday in order to avoid the press. "They said, 'We have to fingerprint you,'" Hickman recalls. "So they threw me in the drunk tank for an hour and a half with these derelicts. When they finally took my picture and took my fingerprints, the guy there said, 'The press is outside.' I asked him, 'How long did it take you to call them?' I just told the guy to get me my belt. I go out the back door and the press guy there taking my picture says, 'I want to get your side.' I said, 'You're a fucking year late,' and walked away."
Two years passed before the case went to trial. Du Page prosecutors didn't have any proof that Hickman had personally benefited from the Waste Management deal, so they sought to prove he had some other motive. Prosecutors said Hickman had lost nearly $350,000 at two Joliet riverboat casinos in 1993 and '94. Hickman's attorney, William Conlon of the Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin, filed a motion to suppress the gambling evidence as well as evidence that Kotlarz had been paid $144,000 by firms that saw their tollway business climb from $1 million to $6 million after retaining his services. Judge Mehling granted the defendants' motion, but a year later prosecutors persuaded the state appellate court to overturn Mehling's ruling. Then on the eve of the trial, prosecutors decided not to pursue the gambling angle because, they claimed, several potential witnesses thought the records provided by the Joliet casinos were unreliable. Prosecutors said they didn't want to take the time to prove Hickman's huge gambling losses because the trial had been delayed long enough. Conlon countered they didn't want to pursue the gambling angle because there wasn't one.
"I didn't lose," Hickman told me. "I won, and the IRS's audits of my tax returns show it. I was lucky. At Harrah's in 1993, I made $70,000. In one night I made $10,000 playing the slot machines. I hit 17 jackpots."
On a blustery April day in 1997, I drove west on the East-West Tollway, glancing south toward ISTHA headquarters long enough to see Old Glory flapping in the breeze.
Exiting in Wheaton, I turned into Du Page County's sprawling government campus. The complex contains more than 30 buildings valued at $428 million spread out over nearly a square mile of untaxed real estate--a veritable Versailles for the state's richest county. I cruised along a wide and curving strip of asphalt toward the free parking garage of the Du Page Judiciary Center.
The courthouse was hopping that afternoon with luckless hustlers and their lawyers. The place employs 900 people, and as many as 2,500 pour through the building every day to pay traffic fines, see probation officers, and go to court.
A plaque near a bank of elevators listed the honored guests at the building's ribbon-cutting ceremony. One of the names sounded familiar. While researching possible links between campaign contributions and state contracts, I often saw this firm--Wight & Company--dishing out dough to such prominent Republicans as Jim Edgar, Pate Philip, and state representatives Lee Daniels and Robert Churchill.
On November 16, 1995, the Downers Grove-based engineering company had contributed $500 to the campaign fund of Lake County Board member Robert Neal, one of only two elected officials on ISTHA's board. On the very same day the tollway board increased Wight's engineering services contract from $221,894 to $1,296,972.32. Since 1992, Wight has received $3.4 million working for ISTHA.
"I think it's extremely unfair for anyone to draw the conclusion that we're trying to buy business," company president Mark Wight told the Tribune in a 1997 story about his firm's good fortunes at an entirely different government trough. According to the Tribune, between 1992 and '95 the $250-million-a-year company had paid nearly $10,000 to the campaigns of 13 Du Page County Board members who also sat on the forest preserve commission. The largest sum--$3,750--went to former tollway king Gayle Franzen, who by then had been elected chairman of the Du Page County Board. In 1997 Wight & Company won the contract to design a new $5 million forest preserve headquarters near Wheaton. The story rattled off a handful of other Wight-designed government buildings in Kane and Du Page counties, including the Du Page Judiciary Center. Some observers were surprised by Wight's winning the forest preserve contract, because Du Page had unsuccessfully sued the company after illnesses of Judiciary Center workers were attributed to problems with an air-circulation system. A jury found Wight & Company innocent in December 1994, blaming the problems on the improper operation of the system by building staff.
Last October Wight & Company was one of two lucky winners when the Du Page County Board approved a $387,000 contract for architectural and engineering work in a planned $4.5 million expansion of the county jail and sheriff's office. "Most builders only get at most one contract each year from state government," Hickman says. "Wight gets contracts every other month or so."
The air seemed fine as I rode the elevator to the fourth floor of the Du Page Judiciary Center, where Hickman and Kotlarz were on trial. Walking down a corridor that's wide enough to accommodate automobile traffic going in both directions, I found my way to Judge Mehling's courtroom. Looking at the docket, I noticed that more than half of the people appearing in court couldn't afford their own lawyers. Both Hickman and Kotlarz had secured high-priced lawyers whom the prosecution would later describe as relentless in ferreting out the weaknesses in the case. Du Page prosecutor Neal Thompson even likened them to "a pack of wolves attacking a cripple."
"Did the authority have the authority?" was the first question I heard as I took my seat among the rows of benches in the stuffy wood-paneled room. Kotlarz's lawyer, David Stetler, was cross-examining Waste Management's real estate attorney, who had negotiated the land purchase from the tollway.
Hickman sat at one of the defense tables. He seemed nervous, nibbling on the nail of his right index finger. He looked grim and gaunt, a shadow of the robust fellow I had last seen inside One Authority Drive.
To be continued next week.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell/Yvette Marie Dostatni.