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Crime
Judge sentences Simms to prison, home confinement

URBANA — A federal judge had harsh words for a former local official Monday as he handed down a sentence.

Before sentencing Richard Simms to nine months in federal prison and two years house arrest for stealing $2 million from the public coffers, U.S. District Judge Colin S. Bruce told the former executive director of the region’s wastewater treatment plant and Kankakee’s Environmental Services Utilities department that he had no honor or integrity.

He then ordered the 74-year-old Simms to report to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on Jan. 11, 2022. After serving his time in prison as part of a plea deal, Simms will be on three years supervised release.

Simms, who now lives in Marietta, Ohio, was also ordered to repay the approximate $1,257,000 improperly paid from ESU and $768,000 from Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency, the region’s wastewater treatment plant, from the timeframe of October 2014 to April 2018.

KRMA is responsible for treating wastewater from its member municipalities: Kankakee, Bradley, Bourbonnais and Aroma Park. It also treats wastewater from Manteno and Chebanse by intergovernmental agreement. ESU is the Kankakee department that oversees Kankakee’s public works and sewer system.

Simms agreed to plead guilty during his March 1 court date after being indicted on the fraud charge in August 2020.

The agreement brings to a conclusion an extended investigation of a man who was highly respected within the community during his tenure.

Bruce said it came down to age and health as to how he determined Simms’ sentencing.

Simm’s attorney, Alan Brunell of Orland Park, argued that Simms’ doctors said he has cancer. Also, in the argument for home confinement over jail time, Simms’ defense offered 33 letters from family, friends and pastors.

“I read those letters and many of those people were shocked and surprised,” Bruce said. “Even the letter from your wife, Janice, does not say anything about what you did.”

Judge Bruce added, “People gave you a standing ovation when you retired in 2018. They praised you. To me, you have no honor, you have no integrity.”

During the hearing, Bruce asked Simms if he wished to make a statement before sentencing.

“I choose to not make a statement,” Simms said before Bruce recessed the hearing for 10 minutes to finalize his decision.

DECEITFUL, HURTFUL

U.S. Assistant District Attorney Eugene Miller argued for Simms to be sentenced to 30 months. Miller had Bourbonnais Mayor Paul Schore and City of Kankakee Comptroller Elizabeth Kubal read statements. Schore is a member of the board of directors of KRMA.

“As was his practice, Simms attended every monthly ESU committee meeting and every semi-monthly city council meeting. I also attended these meetings and I sat next to him for almost every city council meeting during our five-year tenure together at the city,” Kubal read from her statement.

“In numbers, this is about 180 meetings between both sets of meetings. I now wonder, was he sitting next to me and the others thinking how clever he was to be actively executing a fraudulent scheme under the noses of some highly intelligent people from within the City of Kankakee? Some of which were colleagues, friends and noted professionals within the community.

“The harm that Simms caused through not a single instance, but over a period of four-plus years was a decision he made repeatedly to hurt the city and ESU for his own personal gain.”

Schore said Simms had provided great knowledge and leadership since KRMA was founded in 1988.

“Given his professional and educational background, his history with KRMA, and his long tenure as KRMA’s executive director including during the recent plant upgrades, Mr. Simms had an intricate knowledge of the KRMA operation and understood the operations of KRMA better than any other person. KRMA board members — myself included — as well as KRMA employees, and KRMA accounting professionals placed a great deal of reliance upon Mr. Simms for his information and insights concerning all aspects of the KRMA operation,” Schore said.

“It turns out that we didn’t really know Mr. Simms,” he said. “The trusted advisor we thought we had was instead a man who used his deep institutional knowledge of KRMA for his own personal gain and the private enrichment of his family members. His abuse of trust for his own personal gain and the private gain of his family members resulted in the direct loss to KRMA of at least $768,000, money that Mr. Simms diverted to himself and his daughter.”

THE FRAUD

According to the court documents, Simms and his computer software development firm, Plum Flower International LTD, submitted payment invoices totaling $2,025,000.

Plum Flower is a company ran by Simms’ daughter, Anna.

Simms, however, never had approval from KRMA nor the ESU board of directors to spend this money for software development as the organizations never entered into contracts with him for this purpose.

During the five-year time frame in question, Simms received more than $2.5 million in salary and legitimate payments: approximately $1.1 million from KRMA and $1.6 from ESU.

Simms registered Plum Flower in March 2014 with the State of Illinois purportedly to develop a software application for medical companies to track medical records.

A federal investigation reported that although Simms did not have board approval or contracts with his engineering firm to develop software, he submitted fraudulent and inflated invoices to KRMA and ESU for software development. Simms is accused of circumventing KRMA’s invoice payment procedure by submitting invoices directly to its accounting firm. As a result of this practice, KRMA’s superintendent and administrative assistant did not approve or were unaware of the invoices.

Plum Flower used approximately $161,000 of the funds, federal documents showed, to pay another company to create a software application — called Eco App Pro — which they intended to sell on the open market. Most of the remaining funds were used for the personal benefit of Simms, according to court documents.


Local
After fire, St. Paul's sees outpouring of support

Editor's Note: A breakout box and updated Bitly link have been added to this story for more information about donations. 

BEECHER — Sunday afternoon, the steeple of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Beecher caught fire, resulting in a total loss of the church.

As smoke drifted from the still-smoldering remains of the church on Monday, its pastor and congregation were still able to count their blessings.

“I can’t tell you how many phone calls, emails, texts of people [saying] ‘praying for you’ and ‘sorry this happened,’” the Rev. Michael Stein said, calling the outpouring of support “a blessing.”

The church caught fire around 1:30 p.m. Sunday as the congregation was hosting its annual Oktoberfest celebration.

The loss of the 156-year-old church sent shockwaves through not only the congregation but also the community.

Sharing memories

Congregation members Scott Hoffmeyer and Dana Woodruff shared memories they had of the church — both having been part of the church their whole lives and having generations of family who had grown up in St. Paul’s. Hoffmeyer’s grandfather, Henry F. Hoffmeyer, was the church’s pastor from 1943 to 1965.

“My dad was baptized there. I was baptized there. My children, my grandchildren were baptized here,” Woodruff said.

“All of my cousins went to church here … just many, many good times,” Hoffmeyer said.

The two began reminiscing about all of the traditions of the church from over the years, including softball games, dart games and potluck dinners. Hoffmeyer also recalled the holiday season.

“Christmas was always a special time. It had a very festive and beautifully decorated interior of the church,” he said.

Another beloved event was the church’s Oktoberfest celebration, which was taking place Sunday when the fire began. The event was held outdoors near the church and no attendees were injured.

Photos and posts began flooding social media, followed by an outpouring of support as church members, past and present, shared their prayers and memories.

Dana’s daughter, Jessica Woodruff, whose ancestors were founding members of St. Paul’s, is a St. Paul’s Sunday school teacher and council member.

“It’s the hardest thing we’ve dealt with, but it’s the people that make the church and we are strong,” she said.

The church coordinates the Beecher Farmers’ Market and Woodruff is an administrator on the market’s Facebook page. She shared a post Monday morning announcing that the market would go on as normal this Saturday.

“If you’d like to stop by and share your stories or connection, memories of our church, we would love to talk to you,” she wrote in the post, noting that many have reached out regarding a fundraiser.

“All of your kind words and prayers mean so much to us during this time,” Woodruff’s post continued. “We just want to thank you all, especially our Beecher Fire Department, and all that helped [Sunday].”

Historic structure

According to the historical book “Beecher Quasquicentennial: 1870-1995,” a group of German Lutherans met periodically for worship beginning in 1862 at the home of John Haseman, of Beecher. When more space was needed in 1864, worship services were moved to a public school house north of Washington Center on the Vincennes Trail.

In the spring of 1865, about 20 families — along with then pastor Rev. Gustav Polack — founded St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. The group acquired 11 acres of land, half donated by a Mr. Busse and the other half purchased for $80.

Total construction cost was $1,700 and the parsonage was built in 1879 for $1,250. In 1879, a cornerstone was added to serve the growing membership.

The church gained celebrity status in 2002 when it was featured in the film “Road to Perdition” starring Tom Hanks.

Moving forward

Many have called on the church and its congregation on how to donate, those gathered on-site Monday said. As such, the church will be accepting donations during the farmers’ market which runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays at 625 Dixie Highway, Beecher.

Stein shared that the church is working with Lutheran Church Charities for an online fundraiser which is available at bit.ly/splbeecherdonate.

“Right now the biggest thing is keeping us in your thoughts and prayers,” Stein said of people reaching out to help. “This has been 24 hours of hell. This is going to be a long process — we have to clean this up, tear it down and, God willing, rebuild and come back from it.”


Local
Fortitude shelter gains council approval

KANKAKEE — In a complete about-face from the Kankakee City Council’s vote from one year ago, Fortitude Community Outreach received a needed permit to operate its homeless shelter five nights a week in downtown Kankakee.

The council approved the request by an 11-1 vote. The vote allows Fortitude to operate the shelter in the former St. Paul’s Lutheran School building, 240 S. Dearborn Ave., within the city’s 2nd Ward.

Almost exactly one year ago, the council rejected the permit request by a 12-2 vote.

There was one major change in this request as compared to one year ago.

This permit has a one-year life, meaning after the upcoming shelter year is complete, Fortitude will not be allowed to operate the shelter at the site five nights a week.

The shelter, which can host about 20 homeless individuals, operates from Oct. 1 until May 1.

Executive director Dawn Broers explained the organization is seeking to establish its own location for the 2022 shelter year.

The goal, she said Monday, was that process would be set in place within the next year.

Because Fortitude has not yet purchased its location, Broers declined to state where they are looking, but did note both an existing building and a vacant lot are within Kankakee’s borders.

One year ago, Fortitude was seeking to make the St. Paul’s its homeless shelter seven nights a week without any type of end date established. This new proposal, however, is for only the one year.

The shelter will be in operation on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. On Wednesday and Saturday, The Salvation Army will provide hotel/motel vouchers for the homeless.

It was 2nd Ward Alderman Mike O’Brien who led the charge to get Fortitude its one-year permit.

O’Brien, who voted against the conditional use permit last year, said it was the one-year window which the group was willing to live by that changed his mind.

“This will provide a bridge for them to serve the homeless community” at this location, he said. “But one year means one year. ... We don’t want one year to turn into three years.”

If Fortitude is unsuccessful at getting its new location up and running and it would need the St. Paul’s site, the shelter program would have to return to its practice of having the shelter move to various locations throughout the week.

Alderman David Baron, also of the 2nd Ward, had not been enthusiastic about the shelter remaining in downtown Kankakee. Baron has been at the front of development programs working to bring office and business space back to downtown Kankakee.

He said after the meeting he remains convinced the location is not a proper fit for a homeless facility, but he relented due to the one-year clause.

Incorporated in April 2018, Fortitude has been offering shelter since January 2019. It has been operating its Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS) program out of a collection of church sites since that time.

The program currently does not offer shelter from May 1 through Sept. 30.

When Fortitude does open its own location, Broers said it would operate seven nights a week. The goal would be eventually to have the location operate in some manner during the day as well.

She has stated the shelter is never intended to be a permanent location for those who a homeless, but rather a temporary site for them until they regain more control over their lives.


Local
BBCHS to students: 'We saw you, heard you, and will listen'

BRADLEY — Administrators have started meeting with students who took part in last week’s protests at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School to get to the heart of their concerns and talk about moving forward, Superintendent Matt Vosberg said Monday.

More than 100 BBCHS students gathered outside the school Friday morning before classes started to protest how the school has handled cases of alleged sexual harassment. Some painted teal-colored handprints on themselves, chanted “Change BB” and held signs to bring attention to the cause.

Fliers posted in school bathrooms referencing sexual harassment and linking to a fast-growing online petition were taken down by administrators earlier in the week because the students did not get permission to display them.

In response to the protest, the administration made the call to limit spectators at Friday night’s football game to the families of players and performers.

In a letter to students this weekend, Principal Brian Wright further explained the decision.

“I did this to ensure that those who work hard to prepare for a competition have the stage completely to themselves and without interruption,” he said in the letter. “They deserve that respect.”

Vosberg said the school will go forward with its homecoming festivities and game this week as planned. Due to COVID-19 metrics in the community, the homecoming dance will be held outside behind the school.

Also in the letter, Wright said he wants to improve communication going forward, especially considering the light speed of the “social media rumor mill.”

“I will take responsibility for delayed communication to our student body and school family,” Wright said in the letter. “It is important to communicate what is not happening just as much as what is happening. If I had done this sooner, I believe many of the situations could have had a different outcome leading to less stress, fear, and anxiety for all.”

Wright goes on to ask students to stay in class, and if they feel they need to protest, to do so according to school policy. He notes that trusted adults within the building would be establishing lines of communication with students and working to rebuild trust.

“We saw you, heard you, and will listen,” Wright said.

Vosberg said this process began Monday, as administrators met with some of the students from Friday’s protest first thing in the morning. More meetings with students are scheduled for today.

“If you visit the school, you’ll see administrators out in the hallway all the time building relations, talking to kids,” Vosberg said. “The accessibility has always been there, but for whatever reason, things escalated really quickly last week.”

Vosberg also explained that the school supports the students’ right to protest, but it cannot condone students leaving school without permission while class is in session.

An example of protesting without violating school policy would include wearing shirts, pins or ribbons with messages on them in support of a cause, he said.

In these meetings, administrators are talking with students about their concerns and hearing their suggestions on how to make things better, Vosberg said.

One solution on the table is to use some of the flexible “boiler block” time during the school day to educate students about sexual harassment, both in terms of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior and what to do if the harassment occurs at school.

Administrators are also taking the time during these meetings to explain the school’s response to two alleged incidents that were the focus of the protests.

One was alleged sexual harassment between students; Vosberg said the school investigated this report and it was determined to be unfounded. The school cannot share details with the public because it involves students, he added.

The other was a claim that a male security officer had gone into the bathroom with a female student.

Vosberg said the school reviewed security footage of the incident in question and determined that, after a verbal altercation between two female students, a female security officer had gone into the bathroom while the male security officer waited in the hallway.

“We want to make sure our student body knows proper protocols when there are concerns, and that we are here to investigate those concerns and make sure we do our due diligence so that school feels like a family and that people feel safe here,” Vosberg said.


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