District 214 launches ethics probe into employees' trip paid for by vendor
A Northwest Suburban High School District 214 ethics panel appointed an external investigator Tuesday to look into whether two employees violated district policies by accepting an all-expense-paid trip to Kentucky from a district vendor.
The brief Tuesday morning meeting of the three-member commission marked the first time in recent memory - if ever - such a panel has convened in the Arlington Heights-based district. It was prompted by the filing of a formal ethics complaint by Wheeling parent Amy Osterman, who uncovered details about the April 6-7 trip in some 3,700 pages of district emails received in a Freedom of Information Act request response.
Former District 214 Director of Operations Jerry Cook and maintenance employee Linas Paul attended the trip paid for by Trane, a Willowbrook-based HVAC contractor that performed more than $1 million in work for the district between 2018 and 2022.
Two days before departure to Louisville, Cook signed a $2.8 million contract with Trane for additional work.
On April 6, the two employees visited the Bulleit Distillery in Shelbyville, a tour arranged by Trane. The next day, Trane hosted them at Keeneland racetrack in Lexington.
Superintendent Scott Rowe noted that the latter event took place on a student nonattendance day in which staff didn't work. Trane also gave the employees a tour of the company's Kentucky factory.
But in recommending the appointment of an external investigator, Rowe said he would propose a "course of action" if it's determined that the district's ethics and gift ban policy was violated.
For the current employee, that could include discipline or retraining, Rowe said.
Cook currently is the principal of East Aurora High School. His hiring was approved by the District 131 school board April 17, while the District 214 board authorized the nonrenewal of his administrator contract April 27.
Rowe, who became superintendent in July, also noted the District 214 policy allows for the ethics panel to notify the state's attorney.
"We need to make sure our employees and vendors understand the policy and the expectations that we have of ourselves," Rowe said.
Leading the ethics probe is Kevin Gordon, an attorney with Oakbrook Terrace-based law firm Kriha Boucek. It's one of a handful of firms that does legal work for District 214.
Gordon, who will charge the district an hourly rate, is expected to provide a written report of findings within 30 days. That document would be attorney-client privileged, Rowe said, but the ethics commission would generate a distilled-down version for public release.
Osterman, the only member of the public to attend the Tuesday meeting, said she also wants the investigator to look into Cook soliciting two other vendors for cash to stage an end-of-year staff lunch.
In an April 11 email, Cook asked representatives from Pepper Construction and architecture firm Green and Associates for $1,500 each to sponsor a barbecue event in the administrative building.
Rowe said he skipped over a description of that email during his meeting synopsis Tuesday morning because a district administrator stopped the event before it was allowed to occur. But Rowe added that members of the commission have copies of Osterman's full written complaint.
"I think it still needs to be investigated because I would like to know what the administrator said and anything else after that as far as what happened," Osterman said.
Under district policy, Rowe appointed the three commission members. RJ Gomez, Lori Martin and Manal Omar are all district parents who came at the recommendation of principals for their ability to be unbiased decision-makers, Rowe said.
The panel's next meeting is set for 7 p.m. Nov. 6.