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May 28, 2024

$874,000 in Improper Gifts from Contractor to ROE/PDA Employees –

By John Kraft & Kirk Allen

On November 22, 2023

Will-Grundy-Kendall Counties, Ill. (ECWd) –

An Agency of the Regional Offices of Education of Will County and Grundy-Kendall County, the Professional Development Alliance (“PDA”), entered into a contract with Vista Learning, NFP, as early as 2013.

Between 2017 and 2023, Vista Learning issued $874,740.59 in “bonuses” to six government employees of the PDA, who performed work for Vista Learning under the contract it had with the PDA, while they were paid by the PDA as government employees.

Breakdown of the bonuses given to PDA employees by a contractor doing business with the PDA since 2017:

  • Joel Rogers – $170,120.39
  • Steven Scranton – $171,305.21
  • Tara Ehlers – $163,724.98
  • Brett Housman – $126,231.45
  • Jason Bross – $170,414.39
  • Megan Shae – $70,071.98 (since 2020)
  • Emily Dryier – $2,872.19 (for 2017 and 2018 only)

We asked both the Will County and Grundy-Kendall County Regional Superintendents for comment on the “bonuses” paid from a contractor to their PDA (government) employees.

Here is what we asked:

  • Why is a contracting party to a government contract directly compensating government workers who work under the contract?
  • Are the PDA, Vista Learning, or any of its legal counsel(s) knowledgeable of the prohibition of gifts to government employees and officials?
  • This appears to us to run afoul of the Gift Ban section of the Public Employees and Officials Ethics Act, Section 10-10 [5 ILCS 430/10-10] which prohibits gifts (defined in part as cash) from prohibited sources – do you agree or disagree that Vista Learning falls under the statutory definition of a “prohibited source” and that a PDA employee’s receipt of these cash payments from Vista Learning pursuant to their work under the contract could be considered a gift from a prohibited source?
  • Would you agree that Vista Learning’s offer (and delivery) of cash bonuses may also run afoul of the Public Employees and Officials Ethics Act?
  • As you should already know, we have FOIA requested copies of any Ethics ordinance or resolution of the PDA and ROEs – we believe they do not exist, should they not exist is the PDA going to promptly adopt those required policies?
  • What about the separate ROEs – will they also adopt the required policies?

The Grundy-Kendall County ROE Superintendent has not responded as of this publication.

The Will County ROE Superintendent, Dr. Lisa Caparelli-Ruff, responded with this message:

In response to your request for comment, as a recently elected Regional Superintendent of Schools, I cannot speak to the actions or decisions of my predecessor. The transition of my current office from the former administration was limited. I am not an attorney and cannot speak to the specific laws which you are citing.  The concerns you are expressing are currently being reviewed by the proper entities. The Regional Office of Education does not currently have a relationship with Vista Learning. I have no additional comments.”

The State Employees and Officials Ethics Act, which is required to be adopted, in part, by all local governmental entities, contains a “Gift Ban” provision in Section 10-10 of the Act.

The Act clearly defines who is considered an employee, who is considered a prohibited source, and what is considered to be a gift.

In our opinion, (i) the PDA employees meet the definition of employee, (ii) Vista Learning meets the definition of a prohibited source, (iii) the bonuses from Vista Learning meet the definition of a gift, and (iv) the offering and acceptance of these gifts run afoul of the Act.

These bonuses should have never been paid in our opinion.

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