Collins ‘fooled a lot of people’
KANKAKEE — When the state police started investigating the Kankakee Valley Park District three years ago, the district’s lawyer downplayed the matter.
“My belief is the outcome is ultimately that we’re going to have a clean audit and this is much ado about nothing,” Kankakee attorney John Coghlan told the Daily Journal in January 2016.
It turned out to be much ado about a lot.
Last month, Roy Collins, the district’s former executive director, was sentenced to 3½ years in federal prison for mail and wire fraud charges related to a case involving kickbacks and misspending of park money. A federal prosecutor says Collins owes the district $190,000.
Recently, Coghlan, who has been the park district’s lawyer since 2007, said in an interview he would have thought differently if he knew then what is publicly known now.
Still, a lot already was known about Collins when a park board majority approved $75,000 in severance for Collins as part of a termination agreement. At the time, members of the board’s majority said they wanted to move on and avoid a costly lawsuit from Collins, which they feared would generate more bad publicity about the district.
Collins was indicted four months later.
At the time of the severance agreement, it had been publicly known for more than two months that the state police were investigating cash receipts from the park district’s BBQ Fest, a lack of documentation on the district’s spending, a lack of proper accounting practices, how money was “shuttled” between organizations, and a $3,008 pond liner that was paid for with park foundation money but was believed to have been installed at Collins’ house in Limestone.
In a closed session on April 5, 2016, Coghlan argued at first for giving Collins $150,000, but later reduced his recommendation to $75,000, according to minutes obtained by state police. Board member Dave Skelly, who called attention to Collins’ wrongdoing, disagreed, saying the board should not give Collins a dime.
The minutes state that Coghlan said there were “good and bad things that Collins has done in his tenure and in Coghlan’s legal opinion, the KVPD does not have a concrete case against him to terminate.”
However, in a series of closed meetings before the severance was given, reasons surfaced that some participants suggested could have been used to fire Collins. One reason was that Collins never issued $600,000 in bonds as requested by the board, with Collins’ defenders blaming an underling. Another was that Collins gave raises to employees without the board’s permission, according to the minutes. In one case, he entered an agreement with the district’s finance director to grant him a $10,000 raise one year and a $7,500 raise the next.
“Before we settled, I told the board I thought we had sufficient evidence to terminate Collins but that without a criminal conviction it wasn’t a sure thing and I could not predict what a jury might do if he sued,” Coghlan said in the recent interview.
Coghlan said he found out about the Kankakee Valley Park Foundation $3,008 check for the pond liner in December 2015, after investigators started asking questions. He said Collins explained to him that the contractor would not accept a personal check, so Collins tapped into the foundation checking account. The lawyer said Collins, the foundation’s treasurer, assured him he immediately reimbursed the foundation account with his own money.
Coghlan said it wasn’t until some time after the severance was given out that he discovered Collins compensated the foundation fund only after questions started being asked.
Coghlan acknowledged that even if Collins had immediately reimbursed the foundation account, it was still highly unethical to use a nonprofit fund for personal purposes.
“It’s wrong,” Coghlan said. “It raises all sorts of questions.”
Still, he said it wasn’t illegal to use a nonprofit fund that way, though he said it would be against the law in a government setting.
Despite the foundation issue, Coghlan said it wasn’t a “concrete” reason to justify Collins’ firing without severance because he did not know at the time that the account wasn’t immediately reimbursed.
He said half of Collins’ $75,000 severance was for vacation and sick time, which he said the district owed Collins. Asked whether the park district could have left that debt unpaid if Collins was convicted, Coghlan said he was not sure.
In an email after his interview, Coghlan disagreed with the idea that his statements to the board in closed session constituted advice.
“I explained the pros and cons of the agreement and what I thought the probable outcome of a jury trial would be, which is I did not know what a jury would do. I told them that if they wanted to get rid of the matter now, they could approve the agreement. I believe that to say it was approved on my advice would mean that I advocated for its approval. That is incorrect,” he said.
‘DRIVES ME CRAZY’
Coghlan, who said he was the foundation’s volunteer attorney, helped Collins get a $25,000 unsecured loan for the foundation from a local bank in 2015. This money was used by Collins for personal purposes, according to federal court documents.
For his part, Coghlan said he was told the park district’s 2015 BBQ Fest lost money and needed the loan to cover debts for the next fest.
Coghlan said he left as the foundation’s attorney in the fall of 2015 after Collins refused to voluntarily turn over the nonprofit group’s records to state police. He said Collins demanded a subpoena.
The Daily Journal’s first investigative story about the district’s financial issues appeared Oct. 3, 2015. It was about how the new finance director had trouble finding his predecessor’s cash receipts for the entire 2012 fiscal year.
The story also reported how the district struggled for three years in attempting to prove to independent auditors and the state comptroller’s office that all of its payments and expenses were verified and legitimate.
Coghlan weighed in on the issue in an interview at the time.
“We checked, ‘Is money missing?’ We were able to document where all the money went. There’s no indication anything was paid inappropriately,” Coghlan said.
This is the type of logic that upset park board member Skelly. In the April 2016 closed session, board member Lisa Cooper, who was with the foundation, said she knew of no missing money in the foundation.
Skelly replied that such a statement “drives me crazy.”
“We have had three years of bad audits. There is no way you can say no money is missing. There is a reason we are this far in the hole,” Skelly told his colleagues.
But Coghlan said bad budgeting could put the district in the hole.
‘HE FOOLED ME’
In the October 2015 story, Coghlan said the district’s auditing firm, Smith, Koelling, Dykstra and Ohm, of Bourbonnais, should have warned the district that things were getting out of whack. (The firm said it wasn’t tasked with labor-intensive monthly audits, just annual ones.)
Coghlan also blamed the problems on former finance directors, rather than Collins, who started as executive director in 2011.
“You rely on your people,” Coghlan said in an interview. “To say someone is a new executive director and an audit comes up faulty? I don’t think that’s fair.”
In a Jan. 8, 2016, story, Coghlan was interviewed about the deadline extension given by the Illinois Comptroller’s Office for the submission of audits. He said the park district’s auditors informed the comptroller’s office they would give a status by the end of the year.
“The comptroller was fine with it. They told us we were the least of their worries,” Coghlan said.
In the recent interview, Coghlan said he had a new perspective.
“If I knew then what I know now, obviously that would change my opinions,” he said. “Roy fooled a lot of people. He fooled me.”
Collins was president of the park board in May 2011 when the board, including Collins, voted 4-1 to approve his hiring as interim executive director, for which he was not paid. Two months later, Collins was approved for the permanent position, which paid $85,000 per year. In that vote, Collins abstained.
Coghlan said he had his doubts about Collins even becoming board president.
“At the time, I should have followed my gut. I did not feel that he would be appropriate as president,” Coghlan said.
But he said Collins, the self-proclaimed “King of the Parks,” got good press as executive director for such things as getting the district accredited for the first time in its history. Coghlan said he changed his mind and thought Collins was doing a good job.
“He was moving and shaking, and the park district was moving forward,” he said.
But Coghlan said he did not object to Collins voting for his hiring as interim director.
“It’s not illegal. He was not approving the money. As an attorney for the board, it’s not your job to say to elected officials that this doesn’t look good as far as their personal ethics. It’s up to them,” he said, adding that Collins’ vote for his own hiring as interim director “doesn’t look good.”
In a letter to a federal judge before his sentencing, Collins admitted he wanted to hide the fact that the 2014 BBQ Fest, which he organized, didn’t do as well financially as he had hoped.
“Consequently, in an effort to convince the KVPD to approve and support another BBQ Fest in 2015, I did not provide a true and accurate account of the financial records following the 2014 BBQ Fest,” Collins wrote. “I also convinced the board to delay reporting our fiscal year 2014 audit information until October 2015. During this period, I falsely reported that the ticket sales for the 2014 BBQ Fest were higher than they actually were to bolster the appearance of success of the fest.”
In his interview, Coghlan, whose firm receives $1,100 a month from the park district, said his “personal feelings” about the park district scandal “are not germane to the issue.” But he said he was “regretful” for what happened.
“The best way to put it is I was very disappointed in what occurred and in the actions that brought the district to the situation it was in. I’m glad we put it behind us,” Coghlan said. “Mr. Collins is responsible, and he is paying the price.”
‘THEY TOOK BLOWS’
In an interview, J.J. Hollis, the park board’s president, said he remained confident in Coghlan. He said he counted the lawyer as among those who stuck with the park district during difficult times.
“During this whole ordeal, I tell my park commissioners that I appreciate all of them. They could easily have jumped ship when things got rough. They stayed the course. They took the blows,” Hollis said.
Board member Duane Tucker, who along with Skelly voted against the severance agreement, declined to say how he felt about Coghlan as the district’s attorney. He said that issue will be taken up by the new park board that takes office after the April election; Tucker, whose term is expiring, is not running again.
“I’m just glad this matter is over,” he said.
Besides Skelly, Hollis and Matt Mullady are the other Collins-era members on the five-member board. Mullady, who voted for the severance agreement, is not running again.
Skelly, a lieutenant with the Kankakee Police Department and whose term expires in 2021, said he didn’t want to comment on Coghlan’s status as the attorney with the district.
But Skelly said he disagreed with the park board’s handling of the state police investigation into the district.
“I don’t agree with our lack of participation as a board in the investigation,” Skelly said in an interview. “We should have actively helped in the investigation as a board. We are controlling the public’s money. We should have the public’s best interest in mind.”
Coghlan said the board fully cooperated.
“There were voluntary meetings with investigators. Hell, I volunteered and sat with investigators myself,” he said.
Asked about the lesson from the Collins scandal, Skelly said, “There are checks and balances in place for a reason. When we ignore checks and balances, this is what happens.”