Ex-official exempt from state law

April 6, 2019

KANKAKEE — The former head of an embattled local agency did not submit required financial disclosures like hundreds of other officials in the county. He was exempt.

For more than two decades, Illinois has required officials to list their financial interests in annual statements.

Although imperfect, it’s a way for the public to determine whether decision-makers have potential conflicts of interest.

Annually, tens of thousands of officials statewide submit what are known as “statements of economic interest” to county clerks or state government offices.

One official who did not submit statements was Richard Simms, former executive director of the Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency, or KRMA, which runs the regional sewage treatment plant. And he did not turn them in for his other job as superintendent of utilities for the city of Kankakee.

These were the types of positions that normally would trigger the state law requiring submission of statements of economic interest.

But the state law in question does not apply to independent contractors. And that’s exactly what Simms was. He billed KRMA and the city through his Kankakee-based firm, Simms Engineering.

The Illinois Governmental Ethics Act is meant to apply to all elected officials and the heads of government entities and departments within those entities.

It also applies to those who have supervisory authority over government contracts.

It’s almost unheard for someone in a government leadership position to be an independent contractor.

County clerk Dan Hendrickson’s office is the custodian of statements of economic interest in the county. While members of the KRMA board have filed statements, the clerk’s office has no documentation that Simms, who retired last April, filed a statement in the last seven years, which is as long as the office’s records go back.

A statement of economic interest from Simms could have been helpful for the public and the seven-member board. If he had submitted one, he might have listed Plum Flower International. That firm shared an address with Simms Engineering and, according to state records, was managed by Simms Engineering and Simms’ daughter, Anna Simms.

Now, Simms is in disputes with KRMA and the city over billing them nearly $1.4 million for software that officials say is incomplete and unusable.

The Daily Journal has found that Simms hired software developers through Plum Flower, a firm that KRMA board members apparently knew nothing about until recent months. Simms said in November that subcontractors got 87.5 to 90 percent of the $700,000, while Simms Engineering got the rest. He has provided no proof.

In September, the board demanded Simms disclose how the software money was spent, but he refused.

At one time, Simms was an employee of the city, according to pension records. He retired as utilities superintendent in 2004 and started collecting a pension, but stayed in the same position, apparently doing the same thing but working as a contractor.

Because the county clerk does not have records going back before seven years ago, it is unknown whether Simms used to submit statements.

Bradley Mayor Bruce Adams, who became the KRMA board’s chairman in 2017, said he would like to have the new executive director submit a statement of economic interest. He said no one informed him that Simms wasn’t turning in statements.

Simms’ attorney, Chris Bohlen, who represents his client on issues relating to the city, said in an emailed response to the Daily Journal’s request for comment: “So the upshot is that Mr. Simms was in total compliance with the law.”

Watchdog groups, such as Chicago-based Reform for Illinois, want more openness on officials’ financial interests.

“The statements of economic interest let the public know where officials’ interests may influence their policy decisions,” said Alisa Kaplan, policy director for Reform for Illinois. “It helps the public know whether those officials are putting their personal interests ahead of the public interest. It’s all about officials laying their cards on the table.”

Simms now is under federal investigation.