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Former Chicago Heights Library Director Accused Of Mishandling Nearly Half A Million Dollars

CHICAGO HEIGHTS, Ill. (CBS) -- A south suburban library director was fired because she could not explain countless invoices – and now she is accused of mishandling just under half a million dollars in two years.

As CBS 2's Jermont Terry reported Thursday night, there are major concerns at the Chicago Heights Public Library about how that money was spent.

"There were just invoices that didn't make sense and we couldn't get any supporting documents," said Jaime Paicely.

Paicely is the newly-elected library board president. She and other remembers requested a deep forensic audit of the library's more than $850,000 budget.

The audit just concluded. A report from it accuses Kelley Nichols-Brown – the former library director – of spending $400,000 with little to no oversight.

"The things that the forensic audit reported were very jaw-dropping," Paicely said.

For starters, according to the audit, there was Nichols-Brown's BMO Harris credit card that was billable to the library. Statements for it showed countless personal purchases at restaurants and grocery stores – including $7,351 to Walmart.

The audit shows there were charges for gift cards ranging in value from $50 to $500.

And Paicely said when the board inquired about the spending, they could not get "a plausible explanation about why these funds were spent."

The audit also revealed that when Clay Custodial started cleaning the library in 2019, Nichols-Brown never mentioned a huge conflict of interest.

"It never came up who owned the custodial company or how they were hired," Paicely said.

That is because Nichols-Brown's husband runs the cleaning company. And while the library was shut down from March until August of this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the monthly fees to clean an empty building jumped to $4,500.

The board did raise concerns during a virtual meeting in April. Yet the audit accuses Nichols-Brown of getting checks cut by going around the board.

"As a director, she would no better than to be bringing bills over, asking the treasurer to print those checks - knowing well that she hadn't had board approval," said Chicago Heights Mayor David Gonzalez.

Or worse, officials noted, the board went from meeting monthly to holding only a total of three meetings in all of 2019.

That violates Illinois state law and the Open Meeting Act.

"We're talking taxpayers' money when it all comes down to it." Gonzalez said.

Brown had agreed to do an interview, but canceled when Terry got to her house. She emailed a statement instead:

"The Chicago Heights City Hall controls the library and library funds and library checks are cut and signed at city hall. Neither I nor former library board president had access to any library funds and our names are not on any library accounts, including petty cash. As a library employee, I simply submitted the monthly bills to city hall, picked up the checks when they were ready, and mailed out the checks to pay the bills. This was the process of paying bills for the eighteen months I was the library director. When was the last audit conducted for the Chicago Heights Public Library before this one in 2020? I recommend an audit be conducted for the past 15 years when the current library board president's husband received payment as a vendor. How many other library vendors are connected to library board members, past and present?

"I inquired about the declining library's budget (from $1.4 million to $900,000) and short staff (from 30 employees to 12) but was ignored. A long range plan for the library was approved in 2014 that included major library upgrades. I followed and completed the directives of that plan, to include programs for the homeless, hungry children, latino immigrants, disabled veterans, and our teens.

"I was hired at the Chicago Heights library for the second time in August 2013, and was promoted to the director in October 2018. There were no complaints from 2013-2019, but when I filed for an ADA work accommodation in January 2020 for my military-connected disability, I was terminated shortly after, while on COVID Leave. I hired an attorney to discuss the legalities of a discriminatory unlawful termination.

"I believe these allegations are a political retaliation because I am running for Bloom Township Clerk. I am a black female combat war veteran with a Master's Degree in Library Science and thirty plus years of public service. I joined the military and fought to serve my country, I went to college and earned a library degree to serve my community, now I am forced to endure an attempt to ruin my good name and character so I can run for office as a real democrat to better serve the twelve communities of Bloom Township."

Nichols-Brown is not charged with a crime, but the audit has been forwarded to the Cook County State's Attorney's office for review.

Meanwhile, the City of Chicago Heights plans to move forward with a civil lawsuit.

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