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Records: No OKs for spending

January 13, 2019

KANKAKEE — Maybe a variation of the old Watergate question applies to the board of the local sewage treatment plant: What did the board know, and when did it know it?

Apparently, too little, too late.

Throughout the last few months, the Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency’s lawyer has accused Richard Simms, the agency’s former executive director, of possible “self-dealing” in spending public money for a software application.

Simms’ lawyer, Chris Bohlen, of Kankakee, denies that. In November, Bohlen said, “Everything Mr. Simms did was with the approval and request of the (KRMA) board.”

Yet, the Daily Journal has been unable to find any evidence that the seven-member board either requested or approved the spending of $700,000 for a software application. It was developed with the apparent goal of better managing the plant, but the agency says it remains incomplete and unusable.

The newspaper has reviewed the board’s meeting minutes going back to 2013 — a record of the board’s subjects of discussion and actions.

In those years, the board neither approved any software bills from Simms or his firm, Simms Engineering, nor requested that Simms undertake the project, according to the minutes. Unlike many governing bodies in the area, the board does not approve a listing of bills.

The agenda for every meeting contained a part for the executive director’s report. In his reports, Simms talked about a wide range of subjects, including medical marijuana and concealed carry laws and regular updates on utility costs.

But there was no indication in the minutes that Simms ever presented a plan to develop software for the agency, let alone give an estimated cost for the project. The spending started in 2014.

In May 2016, Simms brought up a “Process Control Scheme application” for employees that he said would be possibly completed by the end of that year, but it’s unclear whether that relates to the software in question.

Even though there is no evidence of the board’s approval, Simms Engineering’s monthly software payments increased steadily over nearly four years. The first one, in October 2014, was $4,500. It jumped to $7,000 the next month and stayed at that number through January 2015. By April 2015, it was up to $12,000.

By the end of 2015, Simms’ monthly payments had jumped to $15,000. In October 2016, the payments increased to $20,000, but took a dip to $17,552 for a few months in 2017. In his final seven months before retiring, Simms pulled in $22,000 per month for software.

The Daily Journal has found similar increases in Simms’ pay with the city that officials have yet to explain.

In a November statement to the Daily Journal, Simms said 87.5 percent to 90 percent of his software money went to subcontractors, but provided no evidence of that.

It turns out that one subcontractor was Plum Flower International. The firm is managed by Simms Engineering and Simms’ daughter, Anna Simms, according to the secretary of state’s website. The firm, which also apparently was involved in the acupuncture business, hired software developers from Russia, Canada and other parts of the United States.

In September, KRMA’s lawyer sent a letter demanding that Simms provide information on how $768,000 designated for software was spent. Simms, who worked as executive director for more than a quarter century, has refused to comply.

During the same period, Simms also worked as superintendent for Kankakee’s utilities department, where he is in a similar dispute regarding software spending.

‘SHOCKS ME’

In an interview this week, Bourbonnais Mayor Paul Schore, a KRMA board member, said he heard about the software application from time to time and reviewed bills for it. But he said he did not remember the board approving the spending or requesting the project.

“I think everybody relied heavily on (Simms’) knowledge and expertise involving operations,” Schore said. “Consequently, it seemed like no one would question his thoughts very often. I would, but he would take offense. It’s not that I didn’t like him.”

He said he never heard about Plum Flower until recently, saying the Russian connection “shocks me.” At the same time, he said he figured the business of developing software programs involves labor from around the world.

“We’re probably going to be suing (Simms). I hope so. I’d like to get some of this money back. We don’t have a finished product,” Schore said.

Schore said he was curious why Simms did not tell the board more about the process of creating the software. Still, he said he did not believe Simms ever lied to the board.

“I think he had the best interest of the city of Kankakee in mind and KRMA second. Then he figured out a way he could be well compensated for it,” Schore said.

Marc Wakat, a board member who started in 2017, remembered the software being mentioned during meetings, but he did not know the project’s details.

“I viewed it as something that was conceived long before I got there,” said Wakat, who was appointed as a Kankakee representative. “I basically felt my fellow board members understood it better than I did.”

He said the board should have been told about Plum Flower, which was registered in Illinois, Washington state and British Columbia, Canada.

BOARD QUIET

The other five members of the board have largely kept their lips sealed about the dispute with Simms. Rank-and-file members make $600 per monthly meeting, far more than what members of other governing bodies get. The chairman receives $700 per meeting.

Member Dennis Baron, a Kankakee alderman, referred questions about the Simms dispute to KRMA’s lawyer, and Aroma Park Mayor Brian Stump and Kankakee Alderman Carl Brown did not return calls for comment.

The board’s chairman and vice chairman, Bradley Mayor Bruce Adams and Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong, asked the agency’s attorney to release a statement.

In an email, Neal Smith, who works for the Chicago-based Robbins Schwartz law firm, said Simms was trusted and held in high esteem while working for KRMA. Now, Smith said the agency is investigating Simms’ activities as executive director, including those that appear “improper and unauthorized.”

“There is a good chance that this investigation leads to litigation,” Smith said.

He said board members would like to talk with the Daily Journal more in detail about Simms, but that he has advised them against doing so.

Simms has not returned messages for comment. Bohlen is Simms’ lawyer in his dispute with the city, and Joliet attorney Ken Carlson represents Simms in KRMA matters.

Simms worked as KRMA’s executive director on a contract through Simms Engineering; he was not an employee. The agency was created as the result of an intergovernmental agreement among Kankakee, Bourbonnais, Bradley and Aroma Park.

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