Patti Blagojevich on the 2009 season of NBC's I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!
Patti Blagojevich on the 2009 season of NBC’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!

I was reading a first-rate profile of Patti Blagojevich in Illinois Issues when I came upon this nugget: In 1983, Patti left home for the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign to major in economics on a legislative scholarship.”

Patti’s father, Richard Mell, was then and remains today the clout-heavy alderman of the 33rd Ward. How lovely that some nice member of our General Assembly gave the Alderman’s daughter a free ride at the state’s top university. The Mells didn’t need the taxpayers to cover Patti’s tuition. Mell proudly told me when I interviewed him in 2003 for a profile of Rod Blagojevich (the man Patti would marry seven years later) that his late wife Margaret had turned the family spring business, R.F. Mell Spring and Manufacturing Co., into quite a successful operation. One of my sources told me that the company, which supplied springs to automakers, had made the Mells millionaires.

Kristy Kennedy, who wrote the Patti profile, told me she tried to discover the identity of the generous-with-our-tax-dollars legislator who gave Patti the scholarship. (Scholarship is a misnomer; these are tuition waivers that require the increasingly poor universities to charge no tuition.) When Kennedy interviewed Mell, he confirmed the gift, but he did not reveal the benefactor’s name. A spokesman for the State Board of Education told Kennedy that it would be too time-consuming to research the case unless she could supply the lawmaker’s name. Back then, “most of the records [weren’t] computerized,” Kennedy told me. (My call to Mell was not returned by post time; the Blagojevich family lawyer, Sheldon Sorosky, said he would relay my interview request to Patti, but no response yet.)

Scholarships—oops, waivers—like the one that benefited the Mells, received a new round of scrutiny and ridicule from editorial writers and good government types in the wake of last year’s nauseating U of I admission scandal uncovered by the Chicago Tribune. Pressure has never been higher to abolish the perk that allows every legislator two four-year tuition waivers to the U of I and other state universities.

In March, the House voted to abolish, but then backtracked and passed a limp bill concocted/choreographed by Senate president John Cullerton. A Tribune editorial beseeched Governor Pat Quinn to veto the bill and to demand that the General Assembly kill this absurd affront to taxpayers. 

For Andy Shaw, Executive Director of the Better Government Association, there is no gray in this picture; he says legislative scholarships should be abolished. "If lawmakers want to help their friends, relatives and political supporters go to college,” Shaw wrote me in an e-mail, “they should be paying for tuition or handing out scholarships from their campaign funds or their personal bank accounts—not with our tax dollars.”


NBC photo by Tyler Golden