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State Employees Made Splash at Chicago Conference | Champaign News- Gazette | Jim Dey, columnist

June 30, 2012

In early March, managers at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission directed 76 employees from all over Illinois to attend an Operation Rainbow PUSH meeting in Chicago.

In the aftermath of the gathering, which was hosted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and featured former Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, questions are being raised about whether the massive turnout of state employees was a violation of a ban on use of state resources for political purposes and a waste of taxpayer money.

Agency officials deny any impropriety. But Adam Andrzejewski, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate who now heads a public watchdog group, For The Good of Illinois, describes the money spent and employee time consumed as a “disgusting, abject waste” of taxpayer resources.

Andrzejewski’s investigation of this spending episode is just the latest chapter in his continuing review of government spending at the state, county and municipal levels.  Andrzejewski (pronounced Angie-F-Ski) has outed a variety of public officials earning fat salaries at taxpayer expense in the Chicago suburbs and identified many questionable spending decisions.

But the Illinois Student Assistance Commission is his biggest target to date.

Commission spokesman John Samuels, who attended the event, defended the agency’s decision to arrange for the attendance of so many state employees.  He stated that Operation Rainbow PUSH is one of a number of community groups with which the commission works and that Operation Rainbow PUSH wanted to honor its work in providing assistance on college access to high school students.

“It’s unfortunate that someone wants to take a set of facts and not represent the facts with accuracy, “ Samuels said.

He said that Rainbow PUSH “reaches key constituencies” and “that’s the reason we were there.”

He said no state tax dollars were expended because all the employees present not only are salaried but paid from a federal grant.

“There are no Illinois tax dollars being used,” Samuels said.

Despite Samuels’ assurances, state Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, said he was concerned by the large number of state employees who attended as well as the presence of Pelosi, who was on hand to endorse U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr, the Re. Jesse Jackson’s son, for re-election.

“If there was a political meeting, there could be not just smoke, but fire,” he said.

Harris said he intends to look further into the matter to determine whether to ask for an investigation by the executive inspector general.

“That’s a lot of people,” he said.  “It does appear public funds were used to reimburse people for lodging and (travel) reimbursement,” he said.

Among those in attendance was agency head Eric Zarnikow, who took over the agency earlier this year after his predecessor, Andrew Davis, was first put on paid leave and then dismissed.

The ouster of Davis and five commission trustees followed the disclosure of financial problems surrounding the College Illinois Prepaid Tuition Program that is overseen by ISAC.  An investigation had revealed the program is underfunded and raised enough questions about investment decisions to justify an administrative housecleaning.

Zarnikow did not respond to News-Gazette inquires.  Instead, Samuels spoke on the agency’s behalf.

In the course of his inquiry, Andrzejewski filed requests for internal documents and emails from the agency.  The records that were turned over undermine Samuels’ assertion that no Illinois tax dollars were spent.

One document identified the 14 commission employees who traveled the longest distance to get to the Rainbow PUSH meeting on the Southside of Chicago.

One employee, Krystin Baker of Granite City, drove 594 miles to attend the event. She was reimbursed $302 for mileage, $42 for meals, and another $12 for undisclosed expenses.

Andrea Kelsey drove 539 miles from Plainfield, a community 50 miles from St. Louis, to attend.  She received $237 for mileage, $133 for lodging and $35 for meals.

Combined, the 14 employees logged 4, 735 miles to attend the event, receiving $1,897 for mileage, $1,070 lodging and $454 for meals.

The total cost for the 14 employees was $3,549.

Internal emails indicate that commission employees were directed to attend the meeting not just for recognition purposes but specifically to make a political impression on Pelosi, the leader of the Democratic Party in the U.S.> House of Representatives.

One email informed agency employees that “U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi will be at Rainbow PUSH headquarters for their Saturday morning forum on March 3.  As you know the (College Access Challenge Grant program) grant is dependent on federal funding. Rep. Pelosi is one of the decision makers when it comes to CACG. The forum begins (sic) at 10am, but I want everyone there by 9:30 a.m. We are trying to get as many Corps members in the state to attend.  If you cannot attend for a specific reason, please let me know right away,” one supervisor directed.

The agency was careful about making a proper impression, to the point of telling agency employees how to dress.

“Since we don’t have time to have CCE (College Changes Everything) T-shirts made, staff should dress in suits/dresses and wear CCE Colors (black and red). If anyone has a severe economic situation that would make it impossible to comply, please let me know so I can relay the info to (a fellow employee). Men: shirt and tie or suit. Dark suit or dress pants (black or gray). White shirt. Red tie. Women:  Suit, dress or dress pants or skirt and dress shirt. Black or gray (for the pants, skirt or dress). White or red shirt or sweaters (as appropriate),” stated another directive from the supervisory staff.

Emails indicate the agency employees wished to show how the agency “serves students and their families,” but the political theme was constant.

“It never hurts to be introduced to a national figure (Pelosi) who one day might be called on to support efforts like the (ISAC Outreach) Corps,” Samuels wrote agency director Zarnikow and agency general counsel Annie Pike.

Although ISAC spokesman Samuels indicated all the employees are salaried and no extra costs were involved, there was some confusion among employees as to how to report their time.

A supervisor advised one employee to report her hours at Operation Rainbow PUSH in a nontraditional manner.

“Do you have sick time you can use instead?  Can you send me a separate email confirming either a sick day or a discretionary day so I can log it appropriately?  I have a separate filing system for travel and time off requests,” the supervisor stated.

As to the matter of reporting their hours, supervisors reported their time. But the commission did not turn over all the time records of lower level agency employees because it said that `1 emails “within the scope of your request are being withheld as exempt from disclosure pursuant to Section 7(q) of FOIA as they relate to disciplinary matters of agency personnel.”

Despite the commission’s blanket denial of impropriety, Andrzejewski said he is confident that the agency’s pilgrimage to Operation Rainbow PUSH amounted to “converting state resources into a political event because many of the workers were required (to attend), all were coordinated with state resources and time and most were paid to be at the event.”

It’s unclear what, if any, reaction Andrzejewski’s charge will provoke in state government.  Perhaps none.  But his determination to dig deep into the details of state spending and his willingness to follow up on the complaints of whistle-blowers within the bureaucracy continue to be a source of discomfort to public officials used to operating in the shadows.

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