SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – A major contributor to Gov. Rod Blagojevich (search) has received a half a million dollars in contracts for cleaning work that experts say is unnecessary or could be performed less expensively by state employees.
In one case, PWS Environmental Inc. got more than $7,000 to clean a brand-new, unused dome built to store road salt and apply a corrosion-resistant concrete sealer — duplicating work the dome's builder performed just months before, according to documents and Associated Press interviews.
Over the past five years, the Cicero firm has made political contributions totaling $65,000, mostly to Democrats. It has been hired by the state to wash road-salt domes, office buildings, bridges, rest area structures and Illinois Department of Transportation trucks, although state-owned equipment could be used for the work.
IDOT spokesman Mike Claffey said one reason the department hired the company to wash corrosive salt from bridges rather than assigning state employees to do the work is that the agency is understaffed because of budget cuts. He said IDOT was cleaning salt storage domes to cut deterioration and extend the domes' lives.
Richard Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute trade organization, said he had never heard of washing a concrete-and-wood salt dome. "I'm having a hard time envisioning why you would do it," he said.
In all, PWS Environmental has received contracts for $522,000 in state work this year, up from just $2,860 in 2001.
Blagojevich took office in 2003.
Blagojevich spokeswoman Cheryle Jackson defended the contracts, saying Transportation Secretary Timothy Martin thinks he can save money by washing salt domes to slow deterioration and putting employees to work on roads instead of cleaning bridges.
Claffey said that if PWS washed domes and bridges statewide, the Transportation department could save $5 million a year in repair costs.
A third of the contracts — $175,000 — were to clean the masonry facades of four buildings, including the Transportation Department's headquarters in Springfield.
State Sen. Dale Risinger, a retired IDOT district engineer, questioned the wisdom of cleaning building exteriors at a time when lawmakers decided the state could not afford Blagojevich's proposal to borrow $2 billion for new roadwork.
"Would we rather be putting the money on the road or making the building look a little brighter?" Risinger asked.
PWS was an early backer of Blagojevich, first giving to the Democrat's gubernatorial campaign in June 2000, according to state records. The company and President William Mologousis (search) have contributed a combined $24,780 to Blagojevich and $5,670 to his father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell (search), or Mell's 33rd Ward Democratic organization.
Mologousis said the contributions and contracts were not related. He said the master contract the company won was competitively bid, although state records show PWS was the only bidder.
Pressure-washing a building exterior knocks off dirt and mold that trap moisture and ruin the facade, Mologousis said. PWS also cleaned a "smoker's hut" at a Schaumburg maintenance yard and scoured the exteriors of buildings at rest areas, according to information supplied by IDOT.
Retired IDOT engineers said the exteriors of rest area buildings have never been cleaned before, and state employees typically washed bridges and trucks.
"We've always done our own pressure-washing," said Jerry Allen, who retired six months ago after 40 years at IDOT.
Mike Rippel, another former IDOT engineer, said he sometimes hired private companies to clean bridges but his crews handled most of them — and never washed salt domes. He said only two domes had to be replaced during his tenure and that was because they were too small, not deteriorated.
"It may be a good idea, but in all my years nobody ever mentioned washing the inside of a dome," Rippel said.