In a friendship that spans decades, state Sen. Louis Viverito, D-Burbank, and Ettore "Hector" Cesario serve together on the Stickney Township Board, attend the same church and live on the same south suburban avenue.
Viverito attended First Communions and graduation parties for Cesario's four children, and Cesario donated more than $4,000 to the senator in the last decade.So, when Cesario's oldest child prepared for college, he turned to his friend for help. He wanted the legislator to waive his daughter's tuition -- one of the perks of being an Illinois legislator.
"Truthfully, I asked him if there was any chance of her getting the scholarship, because I didn't want to set her up for failure," Cesario said. Viverito granted Maria Cesario, an honors student and musician, three years of free tuition at University of Illinois at Chicago.
Both men vehemently deny the scholarship was an expression of political clout, though examples like this have long prompted criticism of the General Assembly scholarships. Lawmakers can give the valuable freebies to whomever they choose -- and many choose people they know quite well.
An analysis of scholarship and other public data from the past five years shows some lawmakers gave free rides to the children of campaign donors, party loyalists and state employees. At least three students whose fathers were later charged with public corruption had their tuitions waived by Democratic lawmakers.
The fact that these scholarships so often find their way to political insiders has been dismissed as a drop in the state's bucket of overflowing patronage. But they are drawing a second look this year as a state financial aid program for low-income students is set to dry up and amid revelations that lawmakers have used waivers to sway admissions decisions at the University of Illinois.
"We can't find money for the kids who actually need it, but we can give a bunch of politically connected ones a free ride," said state Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, who hasn't awarded the scholarships in a decade. "It's outrageous, but I don't think anything is going to change."
Legislators receive two four-year scholarships each year, which they can carve up any way they chose. Most divide them into eight one-year awards that waive tuition and fees at state schools.
In 2008, the lawmakers awarded 1,509 scholarships totaling $12.5 million. The awards -- which average $8,300 a piece -- come as state lawmakers slashed funding for other college grants.
The legislature halved the funding for financial aid this year, even as a record number of students applied. Universities are struggling to find $200 million in grant money to help poor students pay for next semester.
The General Assembly does not allocate money for the scholarships, so universities already reeling from the recession must cover the cost. For Joseph Flaherty, dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, that means putting less money toward financial aid for needy students or salaries, he said. In the 2008-2009 school year, 67 of his 1,350 students had their $28,000 tuition bills waived, totaling nearly $2 million.
Flaherty said the state funds about 8 percent of the medical school's budget. When the legislative scholarships began in 1905, state funding made up nearly the entire budget, so the scholarships made more sense.
"It has become an anachronistic carryover from the last century ... It is really time to take another look," he said.
An analysis of public documents found that from 2003 to 2008, lawmakers gave at least 140 scholarships to relatives of their campaign donors.
Legislators bestowed at least 87 to relatives of people with other political ties.
The Tribune is naming the recipients in this story because the state identifies the students each year to make the process transparent.
Among last year's recipients was Joseph Parker of Roselle, who received a waiver from state Sen. Carole Pankau, R-Itasca. His two older brothers, Thomas and John, also won waivers from Pankau in recent years.
Their father, Thomas Parker, is a Bloomingdale Township Republican committeeman and a financial planner who has done estate planning workshops with Pankau's husband. He has donated nearly $2,000 to Pankau since 2006.
Like most legislators, Pankau uses a committee to select scholarships recipients and said she has no role in deciding. It's a coincidence, she said, that Parker's three sons won waivers.
"They're obviously a family that cares about education," she said. The elder Thomas Parker did not return calls seeking comment.
Illinois is one of at least three states whose lawmakers dole out scholarships. Maryland legislators may waive tuition for students who demonstrate need and attend state colleges. Louisiana lawmakers can each award an annual scholarship to Tulane University.
In Illinois, the legislative scholarships carry no requirement other than an in-district address. Many lawmakers use special committees to oversee the selection and ask applicants to detail their financial need, but those machinations aren't subject to open-records laws.
Several say they don't want to penalize friends and donors by precluding their children from getting a scholarship.
Viverito said he knew when he gave Maria Cesario a scholarship that the decision might be misconstrued -- particularly because he typically grants one year's scholarship per person. He gave Cesario three.
"This is an exceptional one because of me knowing the family, knowing how hard they work and knowing the financial need," he said.
Still, without oversight or independent administration, the scholarship program may look dubious to a skeptical public.
"Ultimately, this is like a pork project in a capital bill," political scientist Kent Redfield of the University of Illinois at Springfield. "It invites the appearance of conflict of interest, if not a conflict of interest."
At least three recent recipients were sons of city of Chicago employees charged with public corruption.
Matthew Sanchez received three free years at Illinois State University, courtesy of state Rep. Marlow Colvin, D-Chicago. The waivers were given shortly before his father, former Chicago Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez, was charged with rigging hiring for political workers. He has since been found guilty.
Colvin told the Tribune he did not know the familial connection when he first awarded the scholarship but said he continued to grant Matthew Sanchez waivers because he has a policy of renewing scholarships for students who perform well.
"He's one of the nicest, most polite kids you will meet," Colvin said. Attempts to contact Matt and Al Sanchez were not successful.
Ryan Berger won a four-year ride from state Sen. James DeLeo, D-Chicago, two years before his father, Chicago building inspector Kurt Berger, pleaded guilty to taking a bribe. The younger Berger finished his free education at Northern Illinois University while his father was in federal prison.
Neither the Bergers nor DeLeo returned calls.
Kevin O'Gorman, an indicted city supervisor, said his political ties to House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, were unrelated to the fact his son Timothy received four years of free tuition to Urbana-Champaign.
The elder O'Gorman was sponsored for promotions in the 1990s by Madigan's 13th Ward Democratic Organization, according to evidence entered in a trial of Mayor Richard Daley's former patronage chief. O'Gorman said that has nothing to do with his son's scholarship.
"I am offended by that implication," O'Gorman said, adding that his son had stellar high school grades and a record of community service. 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."
The Tribune analysis found at least a dozen scholarship recipients whose parents worked for the lawmaker's election campaigns or directly for the legislator.
State Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, gave his former chief of staff Ramiro Mosso three free years at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mosso, who immigrated at 16, studied marketing while also working for Sandoval. He never earned more than $24,000 a year.
"This kid wants to get an education and give back," Sandoval said. "I'm going to help someone like him every day of the year."
Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago, awarded a two-year scholarship to the daughter of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Patricia Horton, who also served as treasurer of his political action committee.
Hendon says academic merit won Shekinah Horton a full ride to Chicago State University in 2007 and 2008.
"I don't think because I know someone that their child should be denied an education," Hendon said.
Horton said her daughter applied on her own and discounted that the tuition help was a favor.
Such explanations are of little comfort to Cheryl Hayes, who worked the night shift in a Rush University Medical Center lab to pay for her daughter's tuition at U. of I. For months she tried to reach her local legislators about the scholarships.
"I couldn't get anything, not even a, 'Let us put something in the mail,'" Hayes recalled.
Hayes and her former husband covered their share of the tuition, while their daughter Veronika took out student loans and worked as a residence hall assistant. She graduated with honors in 2006 and now teaches at a Baltimore high school
"In spite of them not helping me," Hayes said, "she still was able to succeed."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun