Pricey Capitol renovations had narrow oversight

Published: Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 11:34 p.m.CDT

SPRINGFIELD – For more than two years, lawmakers passing through the state Capitol watched construction workers toil on a $50 million project to restore the 1868 building’s grandeur and bring it up to modern building codes.

But, by law, oversight of the project was closely held by an architect and a four-person board consisting of House Speaker Michael Madigan’s top aide and three other top leaders’ designees. The board meets irregularly and members didn’t see an itemized accounting of the ornate flourishes first proposed by an engineering company – three sets of $223,000 copper-plated doors, $80,000 statuettes, $33,435 marble panels and $3,314 for stone urinal covers – until the work was nearly complete.

This month’s discovery of the startling price tags has sparked outrage and finger-pointing, even filtering into the 2014 governor’s race. Comparing the refurbished Capitol to the “palace of Versailles,” Gov. Pat Quinn has halted all funding for further renovations until an official review.

Many have rallied to defend the once-a-century project, noting the building is a historic symbol of Illinois and the ornamentation a tiny portion of a $31 billion construction program promoted by Quinn and approved by lawmakers. But no one overseeing the project appears to have questioned the expenditures at a time the state is saddled with massive debt and a $100 billion public pension shortfall.

“It doesn’t reflect the world we’re living in,” said Republican state Rep. Jim Durkin, the House minority leader. “It just makes you scratch your head as to how it happened.”

No one involved in the project is making apologies.

Architect J. Richard Alsop III told The Associated Press this week the renovation was a “package deal,” akin to buying a fully loaded car within a set budget, and the itemizations weren’t readily available – even to the board. Alsop said in every case, the lowest bids were selected.

“There is absolutely no doubt we did the job right,” he said.

The roots of the Capitol renovations go back years. Some work began in the 1990s under Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who had every piece of stained glass replaced in the rotunda after they were dirtied by decades of lawmakers’ cigarette smoke, former clerk of the House Tony Leone said.

After years of botched remodeling jobs and a push by Springfield residents, lawmakers in 2004 created a special architect’s office to oversee renovation work. State law gives the architect “exclusive jurisdiction” in the design, planning, construction and installation of capital facilities.

Alsop, a Harvard graduate, was hired in November 2009. He was paid $121,927 last year, according to state records.

The oversight committee, called the Capitol Architect Board, also was created in 2004 and is comprised of four officials appointed by the Democratic and Republican leaders in each chamber. Currently, it is co-chaired by Tim Mapes, Clerk of the House and Madigan’s chief of staff, and Secretary of the Senate Tim Anderson, appointed by Senate President John Cullerton. The Republican appointees are Assistant Secretary of the Senate Tim Kaiser and Assistant Clerk of the House Brad Bolin.

A secretary in Alsop’s office said the board meets as needed. It does not vote separately on each item, said Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, a spokeswoman for outgoing House Republican leader Tom Cross.

In 2009, lawmakers included $250 million for Capitol renovations in an overall $31 billion capital construction program for projects around the state, to be funded by special bonds. Construction on the $50 million west-wing phase began in 2011.

Quinn spokesman Dave Blanchette said Champaign-based Henneman Engineering was selected by the state’s Capitol Development Board to design the project, and that firm proposed the details. Blanchette said Henneman was chosen largely because of its experience with historic restoration and climate control, and its previous state work included a renovation of the Capitol’s south wing in 2006.

Alsop said Friday that the Capitol Development Board, which Quinn oversees, has shared responsibility for the project’s outcome. But Blanchette said while the development board reviews some bids from contractors, the architect has the authority to approve the materials and features of the project and “doesn’t have to report through the normal checks and balances system.”

Lawmakers say they had no clue about the itemized prices, despite a published 2012 report containing updated project and bid information.

Quinn’s aides say the governor knew the overall project’s cost and that it dealt with climate control, accessibility and safety issues, but wasn’t aware of individual items’ costs until recent media reports. A columnist with the (Springfield) State Journal-Register first reported the cost of the doors after receiving an email from Alsop before the Labor Day weekend.

Blanchette said there was no way for anyone but the architect board to hold up purchases, as long as the project was within budget.

Attempts by the AP to speak with members of the board were unsuccessful. Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said the speaker was generally aware of the project, but wasn’t sure how much Madigan knew about the cost of individual items.

Brown also argued a renovation project of such historic importance inevitably is going to include “some expenses that are a little out of the ordinary.”

A top Madigan deputy, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago, described the creation of the bipartisan architect board as “pretty good oversight,” and said any lawmaker who objected to the renovations could have spoken up during the spring session.

“The whole place was torn up,” she said.

But the copper-plated doors weren’t installed until after the session was over. Durkin says the work was largely hidden from view.

“You know, it was all barricaded, there were cloths (covering the work),” he said. “The legislature was pretty much blind to what’s going on in that part of the building.”

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