A relative of Chicago Ald. Frank Olivo's didn't have the required grades for a specialized accounting program at the University of Illinois but got accepted anyway after Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's office intervened.
Another applicant -- the relative of a prominent attorney who, along with his firm, contributed more than $120,000 to ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich's campaign -- got into the law school despite objections from the admissions dean.
A relative of convicted Blagojevich influence peddler Antoin "Tony" Rezko's was going to be rejected until a series of powerful patrons got involved, in a case previously reported by the Tribune.
While these scenarios suggest that admissions at the state's flagship university may have been used as a political plum, the connections may not be apparent to a special commission looking into how influence affects admissions at the U. of I. The commission has decided not to press for the names of more than 800 politically connected applicants given special consideration at the Urbana-Champaign campus during the last five years.
"We're not interested in the names of students, but we are interested in the information that makes all the things we're seeking meaningful," said the panel's chairman, Abner Mikva, a retired federal judge.
The Tribune has determined the names of student applicants in just a handful of the redacted e-mail chains circulated among U. of I. staff concerning those on the clout list. In three of the cases, the applicant was either related to an elected official or a deep-pocketed Blagojevich campaign contributor. All three had questionable applications but still gained entry, records show.
The cases offer a narrow peek inside a separate, shadow admissions process but raise serious questions about the effectiveness of the commission created to investigate it.
At least one watchdog group contends that the task force should check the names to determine whether political favors were traded for admissions.
"Some level of disclosure is critical to the process," said Andy Shaw, executive director of the Chicago-based Better Government Association. "Somebody needs to have all the dots connected, and Judge Mikva should be able to connect the dots and disclose what he needs to end this inside dealing."
Documents provided by the university to the Tribune were heavily redacted, based on the university's contention that it had a legal obligation to protect the privacy of students. Mikva's commission does not have subpoena power, and it is not known if the university would comply with his request if he changed his mind and asked for the names.
The Tribune is not naming the applicants because it is not clear whether they were aware these efforts were made on their behalf.
As part of its investigation, the Tribune discovered the actions that led to Ald. Olivo's relative getting into a graduate program.
Olivo's relative was a U. of I. undergraduate when he applied for a program that would allow him to graduate with both bachelor's and master's degrees in accounting within five years. However, he did not have the required 3.0 GPA in 300-level accounting courses to qualify for the program, according to a February 2008 e-mail written by Madigan Chief of Staff Tim Mapes to chief university lobbyist Rick Schoell.
Schoell spoke with business school officials, who could not say whether the family member would be admitted but agreed to hold any notification to the student until they received clearance from the chancellor's office, records show. About a month later, the chancellor's office confirmed the relative's acceptance.
"[The relative] has been admitted to the program, but with a warning that he will need to raise his GPA," a member of the chancellor's staff wrote in an e-mail to Schoell.
When asked at his ward office this week about the special consideration his relative received, Olivo said he did not ask Madigan for help.
"I didn't make no calls. You need to talk to the speaker," Olivo said, pointing toward Madigan's district office, which is located about 10 steps from Olivo's.
Olivo -- a longtime loyalist in Madigan's political organization -- shrugged when pressed to explain how his relative could have ended up on the list without his knowledge. Before refusing to answer more questions, Olivo said his family member lives in Madigan's district and is entitled to his representative's assistance.
"It's a constituent service, isn't it?" he asked. "He's a constituent."
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown also defended the office's involvement. The speaker's office has sponsored more than 40 applicants in the last five years.
"It's the same kind of constituent service we provide day in and day out," Brown said.
Olivo's relative did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Earlier, school administrators grappled with the law school application of one of prominent Chicago attorney Kerry Peck's relatives. The head of law school admissions wrote in an e-mail that the Peck relative's academic record would negatively affect the school's profile. He complained that the student "is now the third candidate that we have been forced to admit."
"I apologize for the bluntness of this e-mail, but we are setting this young man up to fail," law school admissions Dean Paul Pless wrote.
Then-law school Dean Heidi Hurd forwarded Pless' e-mail to U. of I. Chancellor Richard Herman and wrote: "Can you turn this around, Richard? Please?" Herman, in turn, sent the note to Trustee Lawrence Eppley -- who was reappointed to the board of trustees by Blagojevich in 2007 and has forwarded names for the former governor in the past.
The university supplied no other documents related to the application, but records show that the student successfully graduated from the law school. It is unclear who helped him get special consideration. Neither he nor Peck responded to repeated requests for comment.
Peck's law firm, Peck Bloom, has donated $107,200 to Blagojevich since 2001. Personally, Peck has donated another $15,700. Peck Bloom, where he is the managing partner, has billed the state for more than $1 million in legal work in the last five years.
Eppley could not be reached for comment this week. In an interview last month, he said he did not recognize the e-mail or the Peck relative.
"I don't know who it is," he said.
The Tribune reported last month that Eppley also involved himself in the admission of a Rezko relative at the governor's behest in 2005. Eppley said the governor mailed him a recommendation letter, and he forwarded it to university President B. Joseph White, who passed it on to Chancellor Herman.
The student was to be denied, records show, but he was instead admitted despite "pretty low" scores that worried admissions officers.
Eppley said he didn't expect that passing along student names would give the applicants special treatment.
Tribune reporters Tara Malone and Erika Slife contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun