Epstein: KRMA board not in dark
KANKAKEE — A former Kankakee mayor says the board that runs the local sewer plant was fully aware of now-disputed software spending, despite the board’s assertions to the contrary.
In an interview this week, former Mayor Nina Epstein disagreed with arguments that the board for the Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency was in the dark about the software spending.
“Everyone on the KRMA board knew there was a software project. It was discussed at meetings multiple times,” Epstein said. “Was there a formal document approved? Obviously no. But everyone knew about it, and KRMA was using components of the software before I left.”
Epstein left City Hall after her second term ended about two years ago. As mayor, she appointed four of the seven members of the KRMA board. Bourbonnais, Bradley and Aroma Park each appointed one member.
KRMA and the city of Kankakee spent a combined nearly $1.4 million on the software with Kankakee-based Simms Engineering. The company is owned by Richard Simms, who was KRMA’s executive director and the city’s utilities superintendent for more than a quarter century before retiring last April.
Simms now is under federal investigation and is in disputes with the sewer agency and city regarding the software, which officials say does not work.
Epstein said she doesn’t know what has transpired with KRMA in the last two years, but she said people should wait for information to come out before making judgments about Simms.
“Right now, we have a lot of allegations, but so far, nothing has been proven that we should not have trusted him,” the former mayor said. “There is conjecture. You don’t hang someone on conjecture.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Epstein said she “absolutely” believes that KRMA and the city should have entered a contract for the software. But she said no one predicted the costs would rise so much.
“Both sides have ownership in that. The KRMA board should have asked for a contract. Mr. Simms should have said that this was getting bigger than it should have been. We should have formalized it in a document. That would have been the smart thing to do,” she said.
Asked why a wastewater expert took charge of developing software, Epstein said no one expected Simms himself would create the product. But she said officials believed Simms was the right person to supervise the task because of his knowledge of the sewer plant and the type of software it needed to reduce labor costs.
Simms created a separate company called Plum Flower International, which hired software developers in Russia and around the world. KRMA officials now say they were unaware of the company. Epstein, too, said she was unaware, but had figured Simms formed another business to handle the software.
Simms posted information online about his software, called Eco App Pro. This, KRMA officials say, proves he was trying to sell the KRMA- and city-funded software on the open market. Last summer, Simms told the board that he expected licensing fees after five or more years.
After KRMA found out about Eco App Pro, information about the application appeared to have been wiped off the internet.
The Daily Journal has reviewed KRMA board meeting minutes going back to 2013. 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 the newspaper found not one reference about the software project.
Asked about that, Epstein said, “If you go to board meetings, there are things you talk about that are not on the agenda. They are consistent conversations, but not action items. There were conversations in board meetings about the software, but that may not have been transcribed.”
The former mayor said Simms was one of a number of officials who had involvement with KRMA’s budget. The others included the plant superintendent and the agency’s longtime accountant, Larry Ohm, of Bourbonnais-based Smith, Koelling, Dykstra & Ohm.
“Dick Simms did not do the budget by himself. That was done by a financial person, who cut the checks and looked at the invoices. The budgets weren’t pulled out of the air,” Epstein said. “There are people you trust. (Simms) was well-respected in his industry. He worked for multiple mayors.”
At the same time, she said she would be “profoundly” disappointed if Simms was found to have committed wrongdoing.
Over the summer, Simms moved to Ohio, his home state. Some thought he left because of the software issue, but that is not true, Epstein said.
“It was a long-planned retirement,” she said.
Asked what the board knew about the software spending, accountant Ohm said, “The board was always aware of everything that was going on. They were aware of the payments.”
Ohm said he had no other comments.
In a statement earlier this month, KRMA chairman and Bradley Mayor Bruce Adams said Simms used public money to develop software without board approval.
“KRMA has been attempting to negotiate with Mr. Simms, through Mr. Simms’ attorney, for a return of the money that we believe was unjustly used by Mr. Simms for his own personal advantage,” Adams said.
Adams and Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong, KRMA’s vice chairwoman, didn’t return messages for comment late this week.
Simms and his lawyers are not commenting on the controversy.