Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Two UI trustees remain

By Bethany Jaeger
Two University of Illinois trustees who refuse to resign after the exposure of an admissions scandal will remain. Gov. Pat Quinn said today he wanted to avoid potentially lengthy litigation that would distract from the new board’s mission.

“Indeed, I feel that if we went down that road, that would become the main show, as opposed to what we really have to do,” Quinn said during a Chicago news conference. “Our main focus should be on repairing the damage that ‘s been caused to the university.”

The Chicago Tribune reported in early June that over five years, about 800 students received special treatment and were admitted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because they were sponsored by such politically connected officials as former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, legislators and university donors and trustees.

Quinn sought the voluntary resignations of all nine appointed trustees, as recommended by a special panel led by former federal Judge Abner Mikva. Two board members resigned before the report came out. Five resigned after. Two did not step down. They are Democrats Carroll Frances and James Montgomery. Quinn said he met with Frances and Montgomery and reiterated his stance that they had a fiduciary responsibility and that “if something goes wrong on your watch, seriously wrong, then you should voluntarily file your resignation.”

However, he said, it’s their choice to serve the remainder of their terms. Frances’ term ends January 2011, while Montgomery’s term is supposed to end in 2013.

“I am not going to seek to remove them,” Quinn said. “I think the litigation that would ensue if I did that would totally distract us from our mission at hand, which is rebuilding the public confidence in the integrity of the University of Illinois. That would be a sideshow.

He later added, “I think it’s much better to just soldier on with good men and women that I appoint.”

As of today, Quinn has filled two vacancies and said he would fill the remaining five before the board’s next meeting September 10.

Today, he appointed Christopher Kennedy, president of Merchandise Mart Properties based in Chicago and son of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy (as well as nephew of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy). Chris Kennedy’s name was floated as a possible U.S. Senate candidate to fill the seat vacated by President Barack Obama and was mentioned as a potential candidate for governor. He opted not to run in either race.

“He’s a person of great accomplishment,” Quinn said. “He understands business, and he definitely believes in social service. He believes in education.”

Quinn also appointed Lawrence Oliver II of Orland Park. He has been a chief legal counsel for the Boeing Company since 2004. Previously, he was a private attorney and an assistant U.S. state’s attorney in Chicago, as well as a member of Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission and a vice chairman of the state’s Executive Ethics Commission.

“He is a person who understands the law, and he definitely understands ethics,” Quinn said.

They replace Democrat Niranjan Shah, whose term was set to expire in 2015, and Lawrence Eppley, who lists his political affiliation as "independent" and whose term was to expire in 2013.

Of the 10 voting members, no more than five can be from the same political party. The trustees are charged with governing the University of Illinois, including all three branches in Chicago, Urbana-Champaign and Springfield.

Quinn, who is an ex officio member, said it’s up to the new trustees to decide how to reform the admissions process and whether to take action against the high-level administrators who were involved in the so-called Category I scandal.

Senate President John Cullerton is still encouraging the remaining trustees to step down, according to Rikeesha Phelon, his spokeswoman. “Since that is not likely to happen, he is reminding them that if Senate Bill 1333 passes the Senate, it will have the effect of removing the remaining trustees by law.”

The legislation was advanced as a way to force Quinn to “fumigate” state government from up to 750 employees or appointees put in place by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The measure stalled during the spring legislative session. Cullerton is expected to call that legislation for a vote when the General Assembly convenes for its fall “veto” session in October.

Comptroller Dan Hynes, who is a Democratic opponent against Quinn in the February primary election, sent a statement through his campaign that said Quinn mishandled the situation from the beginning. “Yesterday, Gov. Quinn said he would act on the University of Illinois trustees issue with ‘certainty and with dispatch.’ Today he did neither. Unfortunately there is little that is certain about the ultimate resolution of a scandal first revealed last May, and acting with dispatch would have resolved this matter well before the students returned to class.”

Hynes did not say whether he would have forced the resignation of the remaining two trustees. A call to his campaign was not immediately returned. UPDATED: I just missed the Hynes' campaign returning my call last night. Spokesman Matt McGrath said that Hynes' criticism is not about the handling of individual board members, but it is about how Quinn handled the case from the beginning without immediately determining his legal powers to clear the board or not. He said Hynes would have been more immediate in determining those legal powers and would have set a deadline and established a clear plan to meet that deadline.

Ann Lousin, a John Marshall Law School professor who helped draft the 1970 state Constitution and who is a former chair of the Illinois State Civil Service Commission, points to the constitutional provision spelling out the governor’s ability to remove appointees. It states that the governor can remove an appointee for “incompetence, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”

She said that provision — while arguable both ways — would not apply to gubernatorial appointees of the University of Illinois board of trustees. “Because then that would make the University of Illinois nothing more than a state agency under control of the governor and required to do his bidding.”

“If you want an independent board on the University of Illinois,” she added, “you do not allow the governor to get rid of them when they don’t part their hair right.”

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