It has been said that Illinois is plagued by unbridled corruption. Almost 90 percent of Illinois voters agree. After all, four of the past seven Illinois governors have been convicted and sentenced to prison. So who pays for the numerous criminal dealings of crooked politicians? Taxpayers. One recent study estimates that the cost of unnecessary government projects and programs translates into a “corruption tax” of $1,308 per person in Illinois.
Most corruption occurs where big money is at stake, such as on large construction projects with multi-million dollar price tags. One state agency that oversees large construction projects is the Illinois Department of Transportation, or IDOT. Last month the head of IDOT resigned. Why? Recently, a report by the state’s Executive Inspector General concluded that IDOT has been hiring employees based on their political affiliations. While it may be acceptable for an administration to make cabinet and other key staff appointments on the basis of political affiliation in the interest of loyalty, all other public employees must be selected fairly on the basis of merit. In fact, the Supreme Court holds that filling non-political positions based on party affiliation violates an individual’s First Amendment rights.
IDOT’s problems go beyond alleged hiring misconduct. It is also accused of enforcing a race-based contracting program in a discriminatory manner to gain popularity for the governor, rather than as a narrowly tailored remedy for discrimination.
Dunnet Bay Construction Company submitted the lowest responsible bid for a highway construction project. But IDOT rejected the bid because Dunnet Bay did not document that it would hire enough subcontractors on the basis of race. Dunnet Bay accused IDOT of trying to maximize the participation of minority-owned firms for construction work on certain projects so the State could boast that the work was completed by subcontractors who closely reflected the racial demographics of the area. A practice that would be patently unconstitutional.
To do this, IDOT rejected the bids of contractors who did not meet race-based goals – in effect turning those goals into unconstitutional quotas. IDOT also eliminated contracts worth millions of dollars that were to be offered to small businesses of all races, and replaced them with race-conscious goals on specific contracts. By doing so, IDOT appears to have exceeded the authority granted by federal regulations, and violated equal protection principles that require states to use race-conscious measures as a last resort. In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court held that the government has the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice. IDOT never fully implemented its race-neutral small business contracting program before it resorted to racial preferences.
Attorneys for PLF submitted a brief in the Seventh Circuit arguing that the Illinois program violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.