Illinois Lawmakers Generous with Scholarships Before Ban Began
Even as the troubled legislative scholarship program was on its last legs, state lawmakers continued to make questionable choices and show possible political favoritism in awarding the free college tuition.
Even as the troubled legislative scholarship program was on its last legs, state lawmakers continued to make questionable choices and show possible political favoritism in awarding the free college tuition, a Tribune analysis found.
The newspaper's findings come just two months after Gov. Pat Quinn abolished the oft-abused program and after a federal grand jury sought records for scholarships bestowed by at least three state legislators. One of those lawmakers -- Sen. Annazette Collins, D-Chicago -- chose to give a coveted 2012 scholarship to a University of Illinois at Chicago student who moved to the city from Texas for school.
After the program drew to a close Sept. 1, the Illinois State Board of Education, which oversaw the waivers, released this week a list of all scholarship winners dating to 2001. Not surprisingly, the comprehensive records show that many lawmakers used the waivers as a way to provide free rides to the children of campaign donors and party loyalists.
In the past decade, at least 75 legislators awarded scholarships to children of people who contributed to the lawmakers' re-election committees or other political funds they controlled, according to the Tribune review. At least three students whose fathers were later charged with public corruption had their tuitions waived by Democratic lawmakers, records show.
During that same time period, lawmakers also awarded at least 317 scholarships to the relatives of state workers, whose positions range from toll collector to assistant attorney general, according to a comparison of scholarship recipients with the state payroll. Family members of at least eight judges -- none of whom makes less than $140,000 annually -- also received tuition waivers, according to the paper's review.
Amid media reports of abuse and federal probes, pressure mounted in recent years for legislators to end the waivers. The scholarships became so radioactive that some lawmakers stopped handing them out. In 2012, 519 scholarships were awarded compared with more than 1,400 in 2009 and more than 1,200 in 2010.
The bill to abolish the scholarships passed by a large margin in the House and Senate in May. Twenty-two of the 122 lawmakers who voted to end the program still awarded scholarships this year, including House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats.
Under the now-defunct program, legislators received the equivalent of two four-year scholarships each year to award in any way they chose. The waivers' only legal requirement was that the students live in the lawmakers' district when they received the waiver.
Though most legislators have doled out the awards, which waive tuition and fees, as one-year scholarships, eight legislators gave multiyear awards this year to ensure that the program stretches far beyond its September end date. Three students received four-year scholarships this year, a perk so rare that no legislator had chosen that route since 2008.
Among those giving multiyear waivers was state Rep. Scott Penny, D-Fairmont City. When Penny, a police chief in that small town outside St. Louis, was appointed by local Democratic leaders late last year to replace a departing lawmaker, he vowed not to run for an additional term and to focus only on serving his constituents.
"It's a wonderful job, but I don't know if it's for me," he told his local newspaper, the Belleville News-Democrat. "The thought of me being up here (in Springfield) long-term, I don't think is realistic or practical."
But it didn't take Penny long to dive into the well-worn Springfield practice of doling out legislative scholarships. With the perk about to expire just months into his new job, Penny gave out two four-year scholarships to a pair of students. State records show that the parents of both students have ties to the St. Clair County Democratic Party.
One scholarship went to Danielle Fiudo of Fairmont City, where Penny has been police chief since the late 1980s until taking an unpaid leave to serve in the General Assembly. Fiudo's father, Michael, is a village trustee in Fairmont City.
The other scholarship went to Taylor Lundy of Belleville. Records show she is the daughter of Michael Lundy, a Democratic precinct committeeman in Belleville Township and former Belleville city treasurer. He is now executive director of the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority.
Another Lundy daughter also received a four-year ride to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, from powerful Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, starting in 2008.
Michael Lundy said he does not know Penny personally and never called the lawmaker about the scholarship.
"When Rep. Penny called me and told me he was going to give her a legislative scholarship, I thought they were no longer going to have them. I was surprised," Lundy said.
Neither Penny nor the Fiudo family returned calls for comment. With Penny not running for election, former state Rep. Jay Hoffman is running as the Democrat against Republican Melinda Hult, a member of the Belleville City Council.
"I think Scott Penny is a place holder. He's absent from making any significant impact for the constituents. It doesn't surprise me that he's using his position to help the Democratic Party more than the people of the district," said Jon McLean, chairman of the St. Clair County Republican Party. "These legislative scholarships have been abused, and I think it's a shame he got one last round of them in to help friends when the state is broke."
Penny's scholarship awards are another question mark in the waivers' century-long existence. While the program long has been criticized for allowing lawmakers to pass out waivers like political plums, a federal grand jury is now asking about some of the scholarships.
A grand jury has the scholarship records of at least three current and former lawmakers, including Sen. Collins, Rep. Daniel Burke and former Rep. Robert Molaro. All three are Chicago Democrats who had their records subpoenaed amid allegations they distributed scholarships to students living outside their districts.
Collins, who lost her re-election bid in the March primary, was hit with a federal subpoena in June and has denied any wrongdoing. She gave seven one-year scholarships this year, including one to Jillian Duncan-Poole, a 20-year-old UIC student from Texas.
The student, who told the Tribune she had left the university in January 2011 because of financial difficulties, used the address of her former campus dormitory -- though she was not living there at the time -- to qualify for the scholarship. The waiver allowed her to move back to Chicago from Houston and re-enroll at UIC this semester, she said.
Duncan-Poole, who is registered to vote in Texas and Illinois, said she submitted her Chicago voter registration card, which she obtained while living in the dorm in May 2011, to prove her residency. She also said she gave the senator's office her school transcripts and Texas driver's license number when completing the forms Aug. 4.
Collins' chief of staff, Samantha Stinson, said the senator relies on the state Board of Education to verify eligibility because the office does not have the resources to independently investigate each student.
Collins did not vote on the bill to abolish the scholarships. But Burke, who previously opposed such efforts, voted to end the program in May, two months after his waiver records were subpoenaed.
Unlike Collins, Burke did not hand out awards this year.
"I voted for the bill to abolish the practice, and it was the end of it," he said.
(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune
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