SPRINGFIELD — A gospel-singing former congressman from southern Illinois violated state ethics rules by interfering in hiring and contracting during his tenure as a top official with the state's transportation agency, according to a new report.
The Illinois Office of Executive Inspector General found that David Phelps, a Democrat from Harrisburg, should be banned from working in state government because of his behavior as an assistant director of the Illinois Department of Transportation from 2003 to 2011.
Phelps quit his $127,700 post in 2011 in the midst of an unfolding scandal involving similar allegations against one of his deputies at the agency, Danny Clayton. Three other workers and one contractor also were ensnared in the probe.
Phelps was hired by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich after losing a bid for Congress to Republican U.S. Rep. John Shimkus of Collinsville in the 2002 election. He previously served as a member of the Illinois House and was Saline County clerk in the 1980s.
Phelps and his family became well-known in the 1970s for campaigning for public office by barnstorming across southern Illinois, mixing politics and gospel music.
"We'd cover 10 counties in a day," he said during a 2002 interview.
The report said other than meeting with "lots of people," it is unclear what Phelps' duties were in the IDOT position.
But the 47-page report indicates that Phelps spent time hiring employees and trying to ensure certain companies from his home region were ranked high for certain jobs.
Phelps acknowledged he wrote multiple letters of recommendation for IDOT job applicants, including those as low on the totem pole as the workers who pick up dead animals along highways.
"Mr. Phelps explained that he engages in this practice because he wants to help `good people' whom he knows. Investigators then asked if that included the `good people' who supported his previous congressional campaign. In response, Mr. Phelps said `yes,'" the report notes.
Phelps also acknowledged he worked to promote southern Illinois businesses when it came time to rank contractors for state projects.
"Mr. Phelps explained he assists southern Illinois businesses because he views his mission at the department as to reverse the past discrimination against the people and entities of southern Illinois," the report notes.
Attempts to reach Phelps were not successful Monday.
In a Jan. 18 letter to the inspector general's office, Phelps' attorney argued that the former congressman's name should be redacted from the report because he resigned and was not disciplined in connection with the allegations.
"(It) would be unfair, prejudicial and unjustifiably harmful to the reputation of Mr. Phelps to publish any of these allegations against him," attorney Robert Uhe wrote.
Clayton, meanwhile, also was found to have tried to use his position to call in favors for friends and family.
Clayton, who was removed from his $102,000-per-year job as assistant regional engineer in the agency's District 9 Carbondale office in 2011, was fined $4,000 in connection with the summer job hiring scandal.
Clayton also violated state ethics rules by failing to report he also worked for a southern Illinois coal company and also was serving as Harrisburg Township supervisor.
"Mr. Clayton may have compromised the quality of services provided to and paid for by Illinois taxpayers," the report notes.
In a March response to the allegations, Clayton blamed the investigation on a few "disgruntled employees."
"The things I have been accused of are not true," he noted.