The interweaving of relationships, contracts and political contributions is nothing new in the District 209 high school district. The latest controversy stems from a contract awarded to Cook County Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore to negotiate the district’s health insurance.
The background preceding the Aug. 22 vote is complex and many-layered:
• Moore personally donated a total of $2,180 to District 209 Board President Chris Welch’s New Students 1st Party during last spring’s school board election campaign. Moore’s insurance consultation company, E.M.M. & Associates, donated another $5,000.
• The Students 1st Party’s only campaign donation in recent years was a $200 transfer into the fund for Community to Elect Eugene Moore in June, according to documents filed with the Illinois Board of Elections.
• One of the members of the Students 1st Party currently on the Dist. 209 board is Sue Henry, Moore’s assistant at the county office. Henry accompanied Moore to the National Association of Counties convention in Honolulu last month.
The trip, attended by 28 Cook County officials, according to a recent Chicago Tribune report, cost about $53,000. Moore’s bill to taxpayers was the highest of anyone’s, reportedly totaling $12,980.
• Moore’s office employed Welch’s brother, Billy L. Welch, until he was hired last week by the Dist. 209 board as a night custodian at Proviso West High School.
• Along with Cook County Board President John Stroger, Moore appointed Welch to the Des Plaines Mosquito Abatement District in 2003.
Yet when a no-bid contract to hire E.M.M. & Associates as a broker of record for Dist. 209 came up at the Aug. 22 board meeting, nobody seemed to know much about the company. Crowd members, as well as board members Theresa Kelly and Charles Flowers, repeatedly asked what the acronym E.M.M. stood for and what the company does, but received no answers.
“I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, what the initials E.M.M. stand for,” said Welch. “I’m going to assume it was Eugene Moore’s name. If someone asked who owns the company, or who was our representative from E.M.M., I could have answered.”
Welch said that the fuss other board members raised about the contract was part of their “political agenda.” He noted that Moore had also contributed to Kelly’s Children’s 1st Party, and that Kelly had first brought E.M.M. on board at Dist. 209 when she was board president in 2002.
“[E.M.M.’s contract] has been renewed every year without controversy,” Welch said.
Kelly acknowledged that she had run two campaigns out of Moore’s office in 2003 and 1999, and said that she had actually introduced Welch to Moore. She said her relationship with both Moore and Welch has soured recently because she “didn’t like the direction things were going.”
She said that though E.M.M. was brought into the district during her tenure, she was not aware of the company until contacted by a reporter investigating its practices earlier this year.
Accusations called ‘defamatory’
Former superintendent Gregory Jackson, who approved contracts for E.M.M. in 2003 and 2004, said it was Welch, not Kelly, who “strongly insisted” that E.M.M. be the district’s broker.
He said that the board had never voted on acquiring or renewing E.M.M.’s services until last week.
Under the new contract, E.M.M. will receive a commission at a rate “not to exceed 2.5 percent of the Fiscal Year 2006 premium for the district’s insurance program with Blue Cross-Blue Shield.”
Proviso officials have estimated that this will amount to about $150,000. The company received $123,000 from its contract in 2004, up from $34,000 in 2003, said Jackson.
Dist. 209 Chief Education Officer Robert Libka told the Review that payments would come through Blue Cross-Blue Shield. Jackson said that though the brokerage fee is billed to the insurance company, rates are raised to accommodate the payment.
According to several insurance industry insiders, it is a relatively common practice for school districts to retain a broker of record to negotiate their insurance costs.
Forest Park School District 91, for example, uses Independent Risk Managers to negotiate costs with the Horton Group.
Brokerage contracts, however, almost always go out to bid.
Welch said that accusations that E.M.M.’s hiring was a political kickback were “defamatory,” and that he was “insulted by the notion.”
“We have voted to hire, promote, and fire people who have donated to campaigns,” he said.
E.M.M. not registered with State
Calls to the Illinois Secretary of State and the Illinois Department of Insurance turned up no licensed insurance brokerage company under the name E.M.M. & Associates, though Moore is a licensed insurance producer.
According to Flowers, a Blue Cross-Blue Shield agent who had worked with the district told him that she had not heard of E.M.M., and that she had been told the contract was with Moore himself.
The agent told the Review that she was not authorized to speak to the media.
When approached by the Review i before the board meeting, Moore first said that he did not know of any insurance contract on the agenda.
Asked if his company had done business with the district in the past, he asked “which company?” When shown the agenda item, he acknowledged that E.M.M. was his company, but said he did not know how much he would make from the deal had made from past contracts.
Asked for the company’s address, Moore, who also serves as the Democratic Committeeman for Maywood, responded with the committee’s Maywood address, 9 N. 5th Ave.
The company does not have a listed phone number.
Moore said that the company had other employees, whom he did not name, but that he was the “primary employer.”
The only documentation of the company’s services outside of Dist. 209 that the Review has been able to obtain is a July, 1997 invoice for $750, billed to Proviso Township Senior Services and Township.
The word June is visibly scratched out, with July written on top.
The invoice is addressed to former director of Senior Services Joe Cimino, who is currently serving a 21-month federal prison sentence for writing checks to himself using money earmarked for senior services.
Questionable PR costs
One major political contributor shared by Moore and the Students 1st Party is Danielle Ashley Advertising, the district’s public relations agency.
The company has received an average of about $10,000 per month from the district since at least late 2003, according to documents obtained by the Review. Dist. 209 also has a full-time PR coordinator, Angela McGee.
The company and its owner, Tracey Alston, have donated over $37,000 to Democratic officials throughout Illinois, according to a February Chicago Sun-Times report.
The largest of these contributions, according to state documents, were a $5,000 contribution by Alston to Friends of Blagojevich in 2004, a $5,000 in-kind contribution, described as “communications,” to Community to Elect Eugene Moore in 2004, and a $6,417.64 in-kind contribution of “newspaper ads” to the Students 1st Party in February.
Welch said that the primary purpose of Danielle Ashley’s employment was to produce the district’s newsletter, which he said is the district’s outlet to inform citizens of the positive happenings and student accomplishments that the “negative media” does not cover.
He said that the company was first brought aboard by Kelly, which Kelly acknowledged. She said that when she was board president, the district did not have a PR coordinator.
Welch said that the district had been “extremely cost conscious” in dealing with Danielle Ashley.
According to invoices obtained by the Review, Danielle Ashley employees are regularly paid figures ranging from $125 to $175/hour.
Services paid for included responding to crisis situations and designing the newsletter, as well as participating in conference calls, taking photographs of board members, writing campaign speeches and helping board members, including both Kelly and Welch, with letters to newspaper editors.
When discussing a recently published letter to the Review signed by Welch, Danielle Ashley Vice President Paul Davis referred to the letter “we” wrote. He immediately denied saying “we,” but later said he might have accidentally used the wrong word.
Welch said that he takes pride in his writing abilities and does not need anyone’s help writing a letter, but said he does “run letters by my people” before sending them.
The company is also regularly paid to attend board meetings. At last week’s meeting, Davis told the Review that he was in attendance because he liked to keep up with goings-on at Proviso, but was unable to answer basic questions about the meeting agenda.
Danielle Ashley recently bore the brunt of criticism on the state level when officials from both parties questioned a $1 million contract with Blagojevich’s office and a $2.4 million contract with IDOT for handling public relations regarding renovations to the Dan Ryan Expressway, according to the Sun-Times.