CHICAGO (CBS) — Amtrak calls its annual Polar Express Train Ride a “magical experience.”
Now it turns out a Christmas-loving Amtrak employee used the holiday event to make $25,000 in debt disappear, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.
Benjamin Sheets, 50, faces a year or more in prison after pleading guilty in federal court Thursday to making false statements to the government. He admitted steering $30,000 in business from The Polar Express Train Ride to his wife’s suburban photo company.
Hours after his plea, an Amtrak spokesman told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Mr. Sheets is no longer employed at Amtrak.” Earlier in court, Sheets told U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras he remained an Amtrak employee — but he acknowledged that might not last.
A court document had identified Sheets as “superintendent, transportation” for Chicago’s Union Station and an Amtrak employee. But he also served the business manager for his wife’s photo company, according to federal prosecutors. The feds say he failed to disclose the conflict of interest.
The Polar Express Train Ride takes place in December and features festively decorated trains filled with actors re-enacting the train ride from the popular Christmas book and movie. Sheets sent his wife a schedule for the event in July 2016 and told her to research a “whole package deal for everything” a few months later, court records show.
Then, on Nov. 2, 2016, Sheets’ wife sent him an email laying out family debt exceeding $25,000, the feds say. Sheets allegedly replied in an email: “We need to write an agreement for Polar Express.”
That same month, Sheets awarded the Polar Express photography work to his wife’s company without following Amtrak’s procurement procedures, the feds say. The photo company sold 3,679 photos at $10 each in Union Station’s Great Hall last December, records show.
Sheets’ supervisor soon began asking questions about the deal. And early last January, Sheets learned that Amtrak’s inspector general was investigating. Sheets told them his wife’s business had been hired by the company that ran the Polar Express event, the feds say.
Sheets then made arrangements for that company to pay his wife’s business $30,535 after billing a subcontractor, records show. He also had phony documents drawn up to back it all up and then lied to the Amtrak inspector general in a March 6 interview.
(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2017. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)