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TJ Kremer III, Contributing Editor
3:16 pm CST February 28, 2020

A former employee of the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association used thousands of dollars from the nonprofit for “personal expenses” over a recent four-year span, according to multiple documents obtained by The New Lenox Patriot. 

Acknowledged in a signed separation agreement from May 2018, the group’s former Director of Recreation Abby Billips used the group’s credit cards to purchase at least $6,503 worth of non-work-related items.

The Patriot’s attempts to reach Billips were unsuccessful as of publication.

LWSRA made the theft public for the first time Thursday, Feb. 27, in an email sent to the LWSRA community by the association’s Executive Director Keith Wallace.

The message was sent one day after The Patriot interviewed Wallace and LWSRA Board President Gina Hassett about thousands of dollars in questionable purchases made between 2014 and 2018.

LWSRA strives “to provide recreation and leisure services for individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities while promoting greater disability awareness in the community,” according to its website.

The services include athletic programs for everything from basketball to swimming, theater performances and training, social gatherings such as dances and dinner parties, camps during school breaks, after-school care, and much more.

A majority of operational funding for LWSRA programs, according to a 2018 financial report, comes from member park districts (out of Mokena, Frankfort, Frankfort Square, New Lenox, Peotone, Wilmington and Manhattan) at 46 percent, or $762,028, and program fees at 41 percent, or $677,783. Donations make up another 12 percent of operational revenue at $196,777.

Wallace’s email — which went out to full- and part-time LWSRA staff, LWSRA Foundation board members, LWSRA board directors and some of the families of those enrolled in LWSRA programs — states that in May 2018 “LWSRA immediately conducted an internal investigation, which revealed a discrepancy of $6,503,” and per the separation agreement, the funds and additional legal costs were returned and in exchange LWSRA accepted Billips’ resignation.

Documentation obtained by The Patriot from former LWSRA employees shows that the amount of money stolen between 2014-2018 is potentially more than double the $6,500 noted in the separation agreement.

The documents also include a timeline that claims LWSRA employees approached Wallace about the suspicious financial activity multiple times between February 2017 and April 2018, more than a year before administration took action in May 2018.

Lynn Annerino, who worked at LWSRA as an assistant to Wallace from 2013-2018, provided the documents to The Patriot. As part of her duties, Annerino was responsible for overseeing the collection of payments, deposits and credit card statements for the nonprofit organization.

She noted, between February 2014 and May 2018, 179 personal or questionable transactions were made from the organization’s American Express, Mastercard and Sam’s Club accounts.

Included in Billips’ questionable purchases — and supported by receipts — are items such as maternity and infant clothing, other accessories for babies, Amazon Prime memberships, makeup and exercise equipment.

The Patriot reviewed the documents and presented Wallace and Hassett with a portion of the findings on Wednesday, Feb. 26. Neither would respond to specifics of the alleged theft or if any of the items could have been used for LWSRA purposes.

In that interview with The Patriot, just one day before Wallace sent the email alerting families of the “unfortunate incident,” Wallace and Hassett said that the decision not to press charges against Billips was a result of legal advice given to the LWSRA board of directors.

“We handled it based on our attorney’s recommendations and what we thought would be the easiest way to get restitution and reduce the legal cost to do so,” Hassett said.

When asked why it took up to four years for the alleged thefts to be acknowledged and investigated internally, Wallace responded “Well, criminals are good and they’re clever. This individual had the trust of a small agency and the trust of that position.”

Wallace and Hassett also said that because notifying LWSRA families and the general public of the reported theft was not part of the legal advice, the organization did not do so. 

“It wasn’t something that came up,” Hassett said. “We didn’t discuss it as a board to decide to make a public press release. Our attorneys didn’t recommend it, so we just followed the advice of our legal attorney and handled it as we did.”

Minutes from the board’s May 15, 2018 meeting show that following a closed session meeting the board instructed its attorney, now-retired Matthew Lulich, to prepare two separate “Agreement of Separation” documents.

One of those documents outlines the terms of Billips’ employment status. It states that Billips misused association funds for personal expenses and that her “voluntary resignation” would be changed to “termination” unless she repaid a total of $6,938.12 in three installments: $250 on May 14, 2018, $250 on the first day of each month thereafter and $5,188.12 on Dec. 1, 2018.

Wallace and Hassett said that Billips has repaid that amount, and that new procedures — such as alerts sent directly to Wallace whenever any staff member makes a purchase using one of the organization’s credit cards — have been put in place to prevent future questionable financial activity from occurring.

Check back on NewLenoxPatriotDaily.com for updates on this developing story.

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