When Sen. James Clayborne recommended Vonetta Harris as a member of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board with an annual salary of $86,000 in 2013, she owed $11,000 in federal income taxes and more than $300,000 in federal student loans, according to a bankruptcy petition she filed in May.
While Harris has been described by a state official as a highly competent board member, officials in the governor’s office, following policy for gubernatorial appointments, never checked her financial background.
Neither Harris nor Clayborne, D-Belleville, could be reached for comment.
Ken Tupy, the lawyer for the Prisoner Review Board, said the statute that governs selection of board members makes no mention of the candidates’ personal finances. But Tupy said any member may be removed by the governor for incompetence, neglect of duty, malfeasance or inability to serve.
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“It does not mention anything regarding bankruptcy,” Tupy said.
Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, who voted “present” when Harris’ nomination came up in the Senate in September 2013, said Harris’ bankruptcy petition raises a concern.
“It raises a question about trustworthiness and integrity,” McCarter said.
The Senate confirmed Harris’ appointment by a vote of 49-0. Clayborne did not vote. McCarter also did not vote. Three senators were not present.
The nature of the relationship between Clayborne and Harris is unclear. The News-Democrat reported in last August that Harris and Clayborne attended a reception at the White House for President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in December 2014. A BND reporter also saw Harris pulling a car out of Clayborne’s garage at 7:30 a.m. on a weekday.
On May 23, about a week after the bankruptcy was filed, Clayborne and Harris attended the Bob Costas Benefit for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, where Diana Ross was the guest entertainer. A photo from the event shows Clayborne standing in the row behind Harris.
In the bankruptcy petition, Harris stated, “Debtor is currently living with parents — will get her own place when finances are in order.” Among her monthly expenses, Harris listed “0” for rent. Her parents live in Polo Run estates in Swansea.
Harris, 41, who lists three master’s degrees and a bachelor of science on her resume, listed the federal tax bill and student loans as still unpaid among total liabilities of $385,682 in the pending Chapter 13 application filed in federal court in East St. Louis on May 15, 2015. Her student loan debt is about $306,000, according to the petition. A total of 20 creditor claims included banks, credit card companies, the U.S. Department of Education and the IRS. The tax debt to the IRS is for the years 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013.
Except under extreme hardship circumstances, federal student loans cannot be forgiven in a bankruptcy, said attorney Shari Murphy of Wood River, who specializes in Chapter 13 proceedings. Murphy, who is not involved in the Harris bankruptcy, said Harris almost certainly will still owe the student loan amount, plus interest, but will not be required to pay any of it back during the five-year duration of her bankruptcy’s repayment plan for other debts including the IRS. The bankruptcy plan, if approved by a judge, will require Harris to repay creditors $1,792 per month for 60 months, or $107,520.
One of the benefits of filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection is that as long as the agreed-upon monthly payments are made, creditors being repaid cannot contact the debtor nor charge additional interest on the amount owed. Also, a successful bankruptcy repayment plan can restore a former debtor’s credit rating. At the end, Harris’ debt would be paid except for the $306,000 in student loans — if the student loans aren’t forgiven.
Harris lists as her primary assets a 2008 Acura MDX automobile with $12,000 owed on it, and a diamond watch valued at $895.
The Prisoner Review Board has 15 members and decides when inmates are paroled from prison and sets the conditions of parole. In addition to the $86,000 annual salary, members also are provided with a state car and gas card. Harris was originally appointed to a partial term by former Gov. Pat Quinn and reappointed in March to a full, six-year term by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
While landlords in Illinois routinely require credit checks before rentals are made, Illinois state government does not check the financial history of people appointed to government boards, according to a spokeswoman for the governor. The governor’s office is responsible for vetting appointees.
“The administration checked her criminal records and nothing was found. We do not run credit checks on appointees,” said Catherine Kelly, press secretary to Rauner.
Harris previously worked for East St. Louis School District 189 as a program coordinator. Harris was formerly married to Korey L. Rush, who served a federal prison sentence for misusing federal grant money while working as a program director at Southern Illinois University’s East St. Louis campus. Harris and Rush divorced in 2012.
Clayborne obtained a $72,000-a-year job with the Illinois Department of Transportation in 2011 for an Alton woman, who had posted photos on Facebook of herself and Clayborne together in a tropical setting described as being in Jamaica.