Sen. Annazette Collins’ rival urges scholarship probe

SHARE Sen. Annazette Collins’ rival urges scholarship probe

Dr. Patricia Watkins, mayoral candidate, addressed the congregation of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, church of former mayoral candidate James Meeks, at 752 E. 114th street in Chicago on Sunday, January 9th 2011. She talks with the media afterwards. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD – The Democratic challenger to state Sen. Annazette Collins called for a probe into why college students were awarded legislative scholarships from Collins even though they appeared to live outside of her district, which could be a violation of state law.

Collins’ rival, Patricia Van Pelt Watkins, questioned whether any laws were broken, considering the students – some of whom had ties to Collins – listed the address of Collins’ former home when applying for the award.

“I think someone needs to look into it,” Van Pelt Watkins said. She urged Attorney General Lisa Madigan to investigate, but Madigan’s office declined comment.

Collins (D-Chicago), whom Van Pelt Watkins is challenging in the 5th Senate District primary on March 20, did not return a message Friday seeking reaction to her challenger’s claims.

But she did issue a separate statement that appeared designed to soften political fallout from the scholarship controversy. In it, she announced the formation of a committee to “review the way legislative scholarships are processed and make recommendations for reform.”

The statement went on to acknowledge that students receiving waivers from her have moved outside her legislative district after getting them, a fact that ordinarily would disqualify them under state law from getting subsequent tuition waivers.

“We believe that the scholarships should follow the students,” Collins said in the statement.

The Sun-Times reported Friday how five students used the address of the former Collins’ family home in East Garfield Park between 2003 and 2009 to qualify for a series of tuition waivers, which under Illinois law can be given only to students who live in a legislator’s district.

State records showed none of them listing that address as their residence on their driver’s licenses and three of them actually have driver’s license addresses outside of Collins’ West Side legislative district.

One of those students had a Maywood address on his driver’s license and had gotten a 2007 tuition waiver from Collins – the fifth such award he had gotten from three different legislators using four different addresses, including one on the South Side.

“This story painted in bright red why the community is in the state it’s in,” Van Pelt Watkins said. “When we have the opportunity to get our fair share of resources and we have those who are supposed to be our leaders take those opportunities away from the community, that’s unacceptable.”

The report also showed how Collins awarded a tuition waiver to Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who is now the treasurer of her campaign fund, before he joined the City Council. In an earlier interview, Collins indicated she had forgotten giving Ervin a waiver in 2004 and was “stunned” to learn of it only recently.

“For her to not know she’d given him a scholarship, that was surprising to me,” Van Pelt Watkins said. “At least Jason had a neighborhood address. Seems to me she should have been shocked she’d given these to students outside the district.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn responded to reporters’ questions about the Collins case by reiterating his support for abolishing legislative scholarships and calling for an investigation into any legislator who awards the waivers improperly.

“Anybody who isn’t following the rules, any violation of the rules, need[s] to be investigated,” the governor said at a Friday afternoon appearance at Loyola University.

“Whatever violation occurred, I think people ought to be accountable for that,” the governor said.

An opponent to abolishing legislative scholarships, Collins is carrying a constitutional amendment on Quinn’s behalf that would give voters the ability to bypass the Legislature and get ethics initiatives placed on the ballot.

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