AP NEWS

David Giuliani: Sometimes trust is misplaced

March 24, 2019

Being the smartest person in the room has its advantages.

Richard Simms, the man who ran Kankakee’s utilities department and the regional sewer plant for more than a quarter century, likely knew that.

At a 1993 meeting, Simms, who retired last April and now is under federal investigation, explained the sewer utility budget to the City Council.

In a moment of humor, then-Mayor Russell Johnson asked whether anyone in the council chambers understood the budget. Simms, who prepared the document, was the only one to raise his hand.

That was seen as funny then, but might take on a new meaning now.

It’s hard to dispute that Simms knew what was going on with the budget of the city’s utilities department or the Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency, which runs the plant. That was his job. He might have also known what others didn’t know.

For four years until last summer, Simms’ engineering firm invoiced the city and KRMA a combined nearly $1.4 million for software that officials now say does not work.

This spending happened long after Johnson left the mayor’s office. Simms became an institution in the utilities department and the sewer plant. His name is on plaques throughout KRMA offices.

In a recent statement, KRMA’s chairman and Bradley Mayor Bruce Adams said Simms used public money for the software project without board approval. However, former Kankakee Mayor Nina Epstein is contending the board knew all along what was going on with the software spending.

We have yet to find any evidence that either the City Council or the KRMA board authorized the software work.

What is certain is that Simms never entered a contract for the software, which he said last fall was intended to make the city and the plant more efficient.

Some people like to say they trust no one. That’s untrue, of course. You cannot get through life without having faith in others. One example of that: You trust the folks who program traffic lights — your life depends on it.

Despite the necessity of trust, sometimes it is misplaced.

In 2011, a Dixon city commissioner praised the town’s longtime bookkeeper as he departed the City Council after more than two decades. He said she was a “big asset” to the city.

“She looks after every tax dollar as if it were her own,” the commissioner, Roy Bridgeman, said.

He was referring to Rita Crundwell, the city’s comptroller and his former typing student in the early 1970s.

One year after Bridgeman left, Crundwell was arrested for stealing more than $50 million from city coffers. She was later convicted.

It was true Crundwell looked after every tax dollar as if it were own, just not in the way Bridgeman meant.

In Simms’ case, authorities have proven no wrongdoing. If they do, many in local officialdom will be greatly disappointed. They trusted Simms for years and years.

HOW DID FEDS KNOW?

Last week, the Daily Journal got proof that federal prosecutors are investigating Simms. After initial resistance, both the city and KRMA released grand jury subpoenas upon our request.

We don’t know how the feds were tipped off; they don’t typically comment on cases.

One possibility, though, is our news coverage. Although local officials had been in a dispute with Simms since the middle of the summer, the feds didn’t issue their first subpoena to KRMA until Nov. 29. That was after we had run five stories on questions over spending with Simms’ engineering firm, starting on Nov. 10.

As for the city dispute with Simms, we ran our first story on Nov. 27. A subpoena to the city was issued less than two weeks later.

In all, we’ve run 30 stories on Simms-related controversies since November.