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The Scholarship Scam

By Steve Rhodes

"I wanted to share with you the latest investigative project from my undergraduate journalism students here at Columbia College," our old friend and Chicago Talks co-founder Suzanne McBride writes. "Eleven seniors and one junior in my Honors Seminar spent the last three months examining the century-old legislative scholarship program, conducting more than 250 interviews.

"They uncovered some interesting facts in their survey of all 177 legislative offices and in interviews with more than 60 students who've received the scholarships. Some of the students talked about doing campaign work, while others had to register to vote - a practice called illegal by one constitutional lawyer."

The series - comprised of eight stories - ran Dec. 8-10. Here are the highlights.


"The Illinois General Assembly scholarship doesn't work like other scholarships," Chicago Talks reports.

"Some students win it because they have the right connections. Others don't face much competition for the award - a year of free tuition at one of 12 public universities in Illinois. And several recipients don't even meet the one requirement of the state's century-old scholarship law - residency in the district of the lawmaker who gave them the tuition waivers worth thousands of dollars apiece.

"A three-month investigation by a team of Columbia College Chicago journalists done in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News found repeated instances of scholarships being awarded to campaign donors, politically connected families and, in at least one instance, a lawmaker's relative. The journalists also identified five legislators who require scholarship applicants to register to vote, a practice one constitutional lawyer called illegal."


"Kelly Durkin of Downers Grove, who received a year of free tuition in 2008 to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Westmont), said she found out about the program from her dad, who learned about it through her uncle, Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Countryside)."


"Chicago resident Megan Dunne, a recipient of four consecutive scholarships, said she was asked by someone in Rep. Edward Acevedo's (D-Chicago) office to make calls for donations. Dunne, along with a friend and fellow recipient, agreed.

"'They were soliciting people to call to try and get sponsors and stuff like that,' Dunne said. 'We both owed that to them.'

"Dunne received a scholarship for three consecutive years at University of Illinois at Chicago and just received her fourth for Eastern Illinois University in 2008, after transferring.

"Acevedo did not respond to calls requesting comment."


"Rep. Mike Boland (D-East Moline) asked at least two scholarship winners from his office to march in a Memorial Day parade with him. One of the students, William Thorndike, who received a scholarship in 2006 and 2007 to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, described the parade as an unpleasant experience, saying it was hot and he didn't know anyone. Thorndike went on to receive a summer semester scholarship in 2007 and a full year in 2008 to attend Western Illinois.

"The other student asked to march with Boland, Nick Schroder of East Moline, received scholarships from the representative in 2007 and 2008 to attend Illinois State University. Schroder said he also campaigned door-to-door for the representative.

"Boland confirmed the students had been asked to march in parades with him but denied that anyone had been asked to campaign door-to-door."


"In 2006, the Quad-City Times reported that Boland gave scholarships to the daughter of his largest individual campaign contributor, Barb Suehl. Suehl gave $15,891 to Boland's campaign in 2005 and 2006, and Suehl's daughter, Alleyene, received a free ride to Western Illinois University starting in 2005. After two years, she transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her scholarship from Boland followed."


"Reporters got the same response - or lack of response - from 23 other legislative offices that were contacted starting in mid-September," Chicago Talks reports. "Seventeen representatives and seven senators have not provided basic information about the legislative scholarships, which totaled $12.5 million for the 2007-2008 school year. Eighteen non-responders were Democrats. Eleven serve as officers in their respective houses, including Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and House Deputy Majority Leader Arthur Turner (D-Chicago)."


"Eight calls over a month were made to Rep. Betsy Hannig (D-Litchfield), a first-year legislator who succeeded her husband. Attempts to contact her district office went mostly to voicemail. When the reporter finally reached Hannig at her residence, the lawmaker became annoyed, telling the journalist to get the information from the State Board of Education. The state agency collects the names of the winners each year but cannot answer questions about how each legislator administers the program.

"Hannig refused to answer questions and requested the questions be faxed to her district office. When the reporter asked if there was someone else in the office who could provide information, Hannig said: 'I don't want you talking to my legislative assistant about this'."


"Rep. Constance Howard (D-Chicago) provided information but asked the reporter why she was being contacted and why the reporter wasn't calling her own representative."


"Five Illinois lawmakers require students applying for a legislative scholarship to register to vote - a requirement that some experts say is inappropriate and discriminatory," Chicago Talks reports.


"A team of Columbia College Chicago journalists in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News identified five legislators who require applicants to submit proof of voter registration for either themselves or their legal guardians: Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington), Rep. Elizabeth Coulson (R-Glenview), Rep. Kenneth Dunkin (D-Chicago), Rep. Renee Kosel (R-Mokena) and Rep. Karen May (D-Highwood)."


"Rep. Kosel defended the requirement, saying she does not tell scholarship applicants how to vote or look at their voting records.

"'I think it's inappropriate not to be registered to vote in this country, and I cannot understand why anyone would question the appropriateness,' said Kosel. 'It's horrid'."


"Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, said making students register to vote is a good policy because it guarantees there is a level of civic engagement.

"Shaw said it's a 'very fair trade' for scholarship recipients to register to vote in exchange for getting free tuition.

"'I think that if you want to be the beneficiary of a legislative perk, a perk provided by an elected lawmaker, that lawmaker has a right to say that you need to be a participant in the democratic process,' he said. 'And the basic participation tool is the voting booth'."


"A team of Columbia College Chicago journalists in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News identified three other scholarship winners over the last five years who lived outside the district of the legislator who selected them," Chicago Talks reports. "This discovery follows a 1998 audit by the Illinois Auditor General's office that found 19 out of 194 scholarship recipients randomly selected for verification did not live in their nominating lawmaker's district."


"Someone has to pay for the millions of dollars in scholarships state legislators dole out each year - and that ends up being the rest of the students who attend Illinois' public universities," Chicago Talks reports.

"For the 2007-2008 school year - the most recent data available - the state's public universities gave 1,509 legislative scholarships worth an estimated $12.5 million, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Almost 70 percent - or $8.67 million, according to Randy Kangas, the associate vice president of planning and budgeting for the University of Illinois system - was waived at the three U of I campuses."


"Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) plans to reform or possibly abolish the General Assembly scholarship program when the legislature returns to Springfield in January," Chicago Talks reports.

"'We don't know what those reforms could be. It could be anything from streamlining the process, creating a uniform process, or it could be complete abolishment. But we're not going to make that judgment prior to the hearing,' Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said.

"The new Senate president, who's taking his first public stand on the controversial scholarship program, is reviewing it now because other Senate Democrats want to make changes, Phelon said."


"Even with House Speaker Michael Madigan's (D-Chicago) backing, a 1999 bill to end the program failed. Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said individual lawmakers have different perspectives on the issue and there just weren't enough votes at the time to do away with the scholarships.

"'There are people who believe as a legislator they have as much good judgment about scholarships as some bureaucrat at a university or bureaucrat at the student assistance commission, so there's a diverse point of view,' Brown said.

"The legislature voted again in 2003 and 2004 on legislation that sought to abolish the program, but the measures - sponsored by Rep. Naomi Jakobsson - failed both times."


A database of the more than 6,000 scholarship recipients from the last six years, as well as a list of the lawmakers who do and don't participate in the program.


Earlier from the Tribune:

"An analysis of public documents found that from 2003 to 2008, lawmakers gave at least 140 scholarships to relatives of their campaign donors," the Tribune reported.

"Legislators bestowed at least 87 to relatives of people with other political ties."


"The speaker, who voted to abolish the scholarships in the past, personally selects his winners based on application letters, his spokesman Steve Brown said. Brown would not comment on any recipients' political ties to Madigan, saying he did not know the relationships to be true.

"Madigan does not believe the scholarships hurt the universities financially, Brown said.

"'If there's one less student waiving their tuition, are the universities going to spend less money?' he said. 'The answer is no'."


Earlier from AP:

"An Associated Press review of state records of political donations and recipients of General Assembly scholarships found that between 2004 and 2009, at least 41 scholarships went to relatives of someone who gave money to the lawmaker awarding the perk," AP reported. "At least 42 more went to relatives of other people with political ties - donors to other politicians, lobbyists, party officials and others.


"'If I had my way I think we ought to have a system where the money that is used for that is applied for by students based on need,' [Gov. Pat] Quinn added.

"House leader Mike Madigan, another Democrat from Chicago, voted for legislation to end the scholarships in 2004, a bill that died in the house, and probably would again, spokesman Steve Brown said. But the speaker doesn't see any new need for action to end the scholarships or change how they're awarded or financed, Brown said."


Comments welcome.


1. From Steve Brown:

"A handful of questions. Guess the statistics speak for themselves. Most scholarships, actually nearly all, are awarded properly. BTW none of this works focuses on how well the students perform both in school and in professional, post-college life. Thanks for the opportunity to comment."

Note: Steve Brown is the longtime spokesman for Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, but says he is only expressing his own views here.


Posted on December 14, 2009

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