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.
Donors' kids get free ride at school
Universities must cover lawmakers' handouts
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