Bob Shipley crashed five times in three years while driving a 2011 Ford Expedition assigned to him as executive director of the Metro East Sanitary District. The last time was in August, when he backed into a car in a parking lot and caused $6,615 in damages to the Ford.
And each time a repair to the SUV was necessary, the levee district’s board of commissioners looked to one of their own: board President Andy Economy, owner of Andy’s Auto Body & Towing. The shop is located in Madison, half a mile from the district’s main offices in Granite City.
But if the district’s lawyer, George Filcoff, gets his way, the practice will soon end.
“I was awake all night thinking about this,” Filcoff said, following questions from reporters about the practice. “At the next (board) meeting, I’m going to introduce a policy to end this practice to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
Filcoff said Economy wasn’t trying to enrich himself.
“He doesn’t need this business. He only thought he was helping out,” Filcoff said.
Copies of records provided under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act show that Shipley’s crashes have generated $18,400 in business for Economy during the past three years. Altogether, including repairs to other MESD vehicles, Economy’s business has performed about $33,150 in work for the district during the three-year period.
Shipley did not respond to written questions.
Economy doesn’t have a repair contract with the district and said he doesn’t vote when a motion comes before the board to pay his shop. He said he sees no conflict of interest because the costs of the repairs are assessed by insurance adjusters, and not by himself or his employees.
“It’s done by the insurance company. They send an adjuster out. They write the estimate. We tow it in. We don’t charge them anything to store it here,” he said.
“It’s just like if you wrecked your car, you take it and get it repaired where you like to get it repaired at. You’ve got your personal preferences where you want to take it. You want it repaired right. They (the sanitary district) want me to do it.”
But government ethics experts say it’s more a matter of appearance to taxpayers. MESD is a flood-control district that maintains a system of levees in the region. The district is supported in part by a direct tax assessed on property owners within the flood-control area that consists of much of Madison and St. Clair counties.
“As a general rule, public officials act on behalf of the public and thus are in a fiduciary (trust) relationship with those they serve,” said Hana Callaghan, director of government cthics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics of Santa Clara University in California. “Accordingly, they have a fiduciary duty of loyalty which requires them to put public interest before personal gain.”
Callaghan, who said she was commenting generally, said, “As stewards of the public trust, public officials have the duty to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
Carla Miller, who writes a blog at cityethics.org for the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, said she couldn’t comment on this specific case, but said “a lot depends on state and local laws. Sometimes it doesn’t violate any particular law, but the appearance isn’t good.”
While Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan appoints commissioners to the levee board, where they earn a $15,000 annual salary, the county has no control over their activities, said county administrator Joseph Parente. Dunstan, who Parente said was tied up in county budget meetings, could not be reached.
“This is not a county operation or anything like that. It’s a separate taxing district. There’s really not a lot we could comment on,” said Parente. “We appoint sewer districts, street lighting districts, 300 appointments to various districts. You really need to go to them directly on this...There’s no oversight that we have.”
Data supplied by the district show that Shipley rear-ended a vehicle on May 17, 2014, that resulted in $4,181 worth of damage to the SUV he drove but not to the other vehicle. On Nov. 10, 2014, Shipley hit a vehicle at the McDonald’s in Collinsville that resulted in $1,949 in damage to another vehicle but none to the one he was driving.
In another accident, Shipley’s Ford struck another vehicle on May 25, 2012, that resulted in damage of $537 to that car. In another crash on August 31, 2013, Shipley’s vehicle slid “off the levee road into a fence,” according to an accident report. Damage was minimal and no repairs were made.
The district’s most expensive wreck, according to district records, occurred on Oct. 9, 2013, when a 2010 Ford F-150 pickup driven by Walter Greathouse lll hit two parked cars, knocking one of them 50 feet, according to a Granite City Police report.
The repairs to the pickup cost $9,057, paid to Andy’s Auto Body and Towing, plus an insurance payment to the driver of the other vehicle of $6,646. Greathouse, son of the late Walter “Shang” Greathouse who headed the district for decades, told police that he swerved to avoid another truck.