CHICAGO HEIGHTS, Ill. (CBS) — A new twist has emerged in a shady spending spree in south suburban Chicago Heights.
CBS 2’s Jermont Terry has reported before on hundreds of thousands of dollars that were questionably spent at the public library there – and now, there are allegations that the problem is broader, and worse.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Mainly Clear And Not As Cold Sunday Night
Drive around Chicago Heights and you will find blight. In the south suburban city, one out of every four residents lives in poverty.
“We’re stretching taxpayers’ money as much as we can to provide the essential services,” said Chicago Heights Mayor David Gonzalez.
Yet how money is being spent keeps getting called into question.
“Huge problem – this is a huge problem,” said Chicago Heights Park District Commissioner Mangiaracina. “To waste taxpayer dollars is a huge problem.”
CBS 2 first exposed how an audit of the Chicago Heights Public Library uncovered how $400,000 may have been misused. One name it links back to is the now-fired Chicago Heights Public Library director, Kelley Nichols-Brown.
The report reveals Nichols-Brown made countless personal expenses, including $7,351 to Walmart. She also paid $143,690 to 23 independent contractors – many who were “personal acquaintances.”
Nichols-Brown got the library to pay more than $22,200 to Clay Custodial, her husband’s cleaning company, without board approval.
Mangiaracina said, “When I see the CBS news article about the library’s audit,” she was stunned.
“I’ve seen so many similarities between the Chicago Heights Library and the Chicago Heights Park District,” she said.
So we checked it out.
While Nichols-Brown worked as the library director, she also served as an elected parks commissioner – a position she still holds. And guess who is now cleaning the parks building – Clay Custodial, her husband’s company. And they’re billing double the amount.
“The cleaning company we’ve been voting on is her husband, and that was never told to us,” Mangiaracina said.
In fact, park records show Clay Custodial started getting paid in early 2020.
“It’s not a coincidence,” Mayor Gonzalez said. “This is a total conflict of interest and it’s totally deliberate.”
Gonzalez pointed out that Nichols-Brown isn’t pushing her husband’s cleaning company without help. The mayor directed us to another name outlined in the audit – Lori Wilcox.
“You’ll see that she is the person that surfaces at the library being the president of the board,” Gonzalez said. “How would you not know?”READ MORE: At Least 14 Shot, 1 Killed In Weekend Violence In Chicago
Wilcox was the library board president when Clay Custodial got the job. She is currently the full-time golf course manager at the parks, where Clay Custodial was also brought in.
And by the way, she also works as the city clerk.
“Now you have as the golf course manager where Kelley Nichols’ husband is cleaning the golf courses,” Gonzalez said. “She’s making that decision to hire that contractor at the library and at the park district.”
Park records submitted by Wilcox acknowledge the golf buildings are closed and “are no longer hosting banquets” due to COVID-19 restrictions. Yet, records show Clay Custodial was still getting paid through 2020.
How much cleaning do you need to do for a closed building?
“That’s a great question,” Mangiaracina said.
The same issue was found in the library’s audit – Clay Custodial getting paid thousands to clean a closed building.
When the library terminated Clay Custodial, park records show its invoices nearly doubled – from $1,400 to $3,600 monthly to clean the closed parks buildings.
“This cannot be a coincidence,” Mayor Gonzalez said. “This is the same M.O. between these two public officials, and they need to be responsible to these residents.”
Mayor Gonzalez said the money could have been used for improvements – something Chicago Heights parks haven’t seen in a decade.
“Parking lots, park equipment, swing sets – there’s a lot of money that is needed into these parks,” the mayor said.
Two park district commissioners are now calling for a forensic audit for the parks division, as well as a probe from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.
“We either clean the air that nothing is incorrect here and we’re not wasting taxpayers’ dollars, and if we are, we need to be accountable and answer to that,” Mangiaracina said.
We reached out to Wilcox and Nichols-Brown about the claims and whether they support a new audit at the Parks Division. They did not comment.
The State’s Attorney’s office also is reviewing the original library audit. The mayor is insisting the state’s attorney needs to look into the Parks Division too.
No one is facing charges from the audit.MORE NEWS: Man, Woman Shot When Fights Breaks Out At Gathering At Longwood Manor Home
Also From CBS Chicago: