Pritzker’s tollway chairman Will Evans is out after tumultuous tenure
He’s leaving after assuming power over the day-to-day operations of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority in a move some called a ‘power grab.’
Shortly after taking office in 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation dismantling the tollway board, citing the need for reform at a billion-dollar government agency and calling it “a new day for the Illinois Tollway.”
Three years later, the tollway board chairman Pritzker appointed in early 2019, former Peoples Gas president Will Evans, is resigning, a Pritzker spokeswoman confirmed Friday, after a tumultuous tenure.
It was Evans’ decision to step aside, according to the spokeswoman, who said Pritzker will appoint Dorothy Abreu to replace him.
Abreu, a banker, couldn’t be reached.
In October, Evans pushed a resolution through the tollway board that gave him and whoever might chair the board in the future unprecedented power over the agency’s day-to-day operations, which, for decades, have been overseen by the agency’s full-time executive director, also appointed by the governor.
The resolution, drafted by Kathleen Pasulka-Brown, the tollway’s general counsel, “reorganized” the tollway so key positions would report directly to Evans rather than fall under the domain of executive director Jose Alvarez, as Evans asserted control over billions of dollars of contracts.
Some viewed the move as a conflict of interest. The tollway board led by Evans also votes on such contracts.
“He certainly tipped the scales differently than it was intended,” said state Sen. Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines, who was involved in a Dec. 7 state Senate Transportation Committee hearing at which Evans and Pasulka-Brown were questioned about that “power grab.”
Evans overseeing procurement was “one of many concerns,” Murphy said.
She said she’s backing legislation that would put “the appropriate power in the appropriate hands.”
During the December hearing, Evans said he not only has the power under state statute to make such organizational changes but also that he was mandated to act as the top administrative officer because of tollway “bylaws” adopted by a previous regime that declared the chairman is also the agency’s chief executive officer.
What resulted was something of a constitutional crisis inside the agency that pitted Evans against Alvarez.
Evans said during the hearing that the changes were meant to make the agency “excellent” and that he had helped usher in a new era of “transparency and accountability.”
His tenure has been marked by a series of controversial decisions:
- Not long after Pritzker appointed him, Evans voted on a multimillion-dollar tollway contract that included an engineering firm he’d previously worked for.
- He proposed renovating his tollway office at a cost to taxpayers that likely would have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars but later backed off.
- He gave $250 to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s campaign fund at the time Evans needed legal wing support on the tollway reorganization from Pasulka-Brown, whose position is in the attorney general’s office.
Pasulka-Brown testified at the Dec. 7 hearing that she did not consult with the attorney general’s office on this.
A Raoul spokeswoman said the contribution came from a campaign fundraiser.
Evans told the committee he’d mentioned the change in passing to Christian Mitchell, one of Pritzker’s deputy governors.
Asked about Evans, Pasulka-Brown declined to respond to questions except to say, “You have facts, you don’t have all the facts.”
Pasulka-Brown was appointed to the post by Raoul — with the consent of Evans — in April 2019.
Pasulka-Brown, whose yearly salary of more than $200,000 makes her the highest-paid tollway general counsel in modern times, previously worked for a now-defunct Chicago law firm where she’d been a partner, Pugh, Jones & Johnson, P.C. That firm was used twice by the tollway in 2019 on bond issues through which the system was borrowing nearly $1 billion to finance roadwork.
The first, completed in July 2019, was initiated by Pasulka-Brown’s predecessor, according to a tollway spokeswoman. The second, completed in December 2019, was Pasulka-Brown’s call, according to the spokeswoman.
The law firms are chosen from a prequalified pool put together through a competitive selection process, the spokeswoman said, and the general counsel has the discretion to pick firms from that pool and does so on a “rotating” basis.