The blue-collar suburb of Markham on Chicago’s Southwest side is no stranger to elected officials betraying their constituents’ trust. Just last month, the City of Markham’s former mayor, David Webb, was indicted for allegedly taking $300,000 in bribes in exchange for city contracts.
But now, another city official appears to have abused his power to bilk the city out of tens of thousands.
Records obtained by Project Six show how Markham Alderman Ernest Blevins, who is serving as the interim mayor of the city, illegally increased his salary by more than $70,000 and ordered the Markham treasurer to pay him $34,000 in “back pay” for his time as interim mayor.
Blevins’ abuse of power is the result of an absurd string of corrupt officials and a litany of taxpayer waste in the 13,500-person City of Markham.
A city’s history of failed leaders
This all started in 2016, when Markham bookkeeper Joseph Letke, who was also the accountant for several other south suburbs, was investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly defrauding taxpayers and investors in neighboring Harvey, Illinois. In August of 2016, while the federal probe was ongoing, Letke committed suicide.
In light of the investigation surrounding Letke, then-Markham Mayor David Webb attempted to fill the bookkeeping vacuum of Markham’s finances by creating an assistant chief financial officer position. Anthony Finch was hired as Markham’s assistant CFO.[i] Finch now oversees the fiscal management of most of the operations in Markham.
Then, in late 2016, Webb abruptly announced he was retiring from his decades-long term as mayor. The unexpected news came even though he had enough signatures to be on the April 2017 ballot. It was later learned why Webb stepped down: He would be indicted on bribery charges just months after his “retirement.”
Mayor Webb’s unplanned “retirement” sparked a four-person race for mayor in April of 2017. Longtime Markham resident Roger Agpawa, a former fire chief for Markham and current fire chief for suburban Country Club Hills, won the mayoral election with more than 70 percent of the vote.
However, in 1999, Agpawa had pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a medical insurance case. Illinois law bars anyone with a felony record from taking mayoral office. As the law currently stands,[ii] only a presidential pardon would allow Agpawa to serve as mayor.
During his campaign, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx pre-emptively sent a letter notifying Agpawa of her intent to remove him from office should he be elected. Despite being notified by the county’s top legal officer about his likely ineligibility to serve as mayor, Agpawa refused to withdraw from the race and stated, “If I am elected, we will deal with this.”
Also, despite Foxx’s warning to Agpawa about not likely being cleared to serve as mayor being public and covered by the media, Markham voters elected him mayor on April 4, 2017.
After Agpawa won the mayoral election, Cook County Circuit Court Judge David Atkins placed a temporary restraining order on Agpawa to prevent him from assuming the mayor’s office. Agpawa is currently fighting this order in court[iii] so he can take office.
Mayor pro tem
With Agpawa barred from taking office, on May 3, Markham’s City Council appointed Alderman Ernest Blevins to act as the interim “mayor pro tem.”
While serving as mayor pro tem, Blevins still represents Markham’s 1st Ward as alderman. Blevins is allowed to vote only as an alderman and is explicitly restricted from voting as both mayor and alderman.[iv]
While he is acting as mayor pro tem, Blevins is also allowed to receive only his aldermanic salary.
But it was that point that cued Blevins’ illegal actions.
Markham aldermen have an annual salary of approximately $20,000. The mayoral salary in Markham is approximately $96,000 per year.
In an October 23 signed memorandum written on City of Markham letterhead, Blevins wrote to Ashley Jackson, a Human Resource generalist of Markham, requesting a raise in his salary to mayoral levels. Blevins asked for the mayoral salary moving forward, an expense stipend and retroactive pay dating back to his May 3 appointment.
On October 24, Blevins also filed a payroll change notice with the city’s Human Resource division, which was signed by a city Human Resource clerk, requesting the mayoral salary levels be effective October 15, as well as retroactive pay effective May 3.
On October 26, Jackson emailed Markham Treasurer Belinda Richardson to approve Interim Mayor Blevins’ request. Jackson cc’d City Attorney Steven Miller, City Assistant Chief Financial Officer Anthony Finch, and City Human Resource Clerk Latrice Merriweather on the email.
An hour later, Anthony Finch wrote back, saying, “That’s how the Mayor wants it paid out.”
But Markham Treasurer Belinda Richardson responded the same evening in an email, “I am not authorizing the payout at this time until I receive written approval from the Attorney.”
Two days later, on October 30, Jackson again emailed the treasurer and assistant CFO, saying, “I did not receive an update.” Jackson indicated that she was going to prepare a “lump sum for payroll 11/03/2017 following the only directive I have seen,” referring to Anthony Finch’s October 26 email.
According to calculated actuarial figures from Jackson, Blevins received a $769 bi-weekly aldermanic paycheck. The pay hike he was asking for would increase his bi-weekly paycheck to $3,653. The retroactive pay for May through October 2017 that Blevins was demanding equaled a lump sum $34,615 payout.[vii]
Pay hike outside of the law
This pay hike was illegal because of evidence provided by several confidential sources. First, the city treasurer never approved Blevins’ pay raise. At the November 1 Markham City Council meeting, during closed executive session, some council members raised the issue and challenged Blevins’ moves to give himself a raise without council approval or the approval of the city treasurer.
Project Six asked Markham City Clerk Jennifer Coles if there was a vote taken in the executive session on Blevins’ pay raise and back pay. The Markham Clerk’s office did not respond to repeated attempts by phone and email for a statement. Markham treasurer Belinda Richardson told Project Six that the city council did have a special meeting regarding Blevins’ salary increase and back pay, but Richardson was not aware of any formal vote by the council.
Despite no official authorization from the city attorney or treasurer, Interim Mayor Blevins received his pay increase on a check dated November 3, 2017, along with a retroactive payout of $34,615.[viii] Blevins’ new paycheck for the two-week period ending October 28 equaled $4,423.
Project Six asked Blevins, Markham Assistant CFO Finch, and City Attorney Miller why the payment was allowed to go through with no council vote or statutory authorization. Finch directed us to Markham Treasurer Belinda Richardson. Neither Blevins or Miller responded to Project Six’s repeated requests for comment.
Markham Treasurer Richardson told Project Six that she repeatedly sought legal counsel in regards to the authorization of Blevins’ pay raise and back pay but did not get any accurate responses in writing. Richardson also told Project Six that
“There was no legal basis for the pay to go through at that time or for anyone to pay out the salary or back pay. As I’ve said on several occasions, I did not authorize or approve the salary or back pay for interim Mayor Ernest Blevins and I did not have access to prevent the payment from going through.”
An unaffordable cost
Corruption has a visible cost, and many times that cost is felt especially hard in small cities like Markham. In late November, Markham city department heads were notified of possible layoffs and furlough days. An email sent by Assistant CFO Finch asked all department heads to “hold off on additional expenses.” The email also says that there is a “need to control payroll,” as well as the possibility of furlough by the end of the year.
At the same time that some workers in Markham’s City Hall might lose their jobs because of Markham’s budget problems, the interim mayor gave himself an illegal raise.
Markham, like so many other small towns and villages in Illinois, is a city that has a rich working-class history and families that have roots there stretching back generations. But Markham, like so many other Illinois towns and villages, has been plagued by elected officials abusing the trust instilled in them by voters and looking out for their own interests rather than that of taxpayers.
The ridiculous line of corrupt and self-serving public officials who see towns like Markham as profit opportunities must stop. More dedicated local oversight agencies and officers, along with voters demanding more from their elected officials, is the only way to stop it.
Until Illinoisans like the people in Markham demand honesty and transparency from their local officials, cities like Markham will continue to be swindled.
[i] Presently there is no one in the CFO position.
[ii] The Illinois General Assembly, by a Senate vote of 40-17, approved Senate Bill 225. If this passes the House and is signed into law by Governor Bruce Rauner, it would allow people convicted of felonies that occurred more than 15 years ago to be able to serve as elected officials.
[iii] Under the Illinois Municipal Code, the mayoral seat would be considered vacant only after a “decision of a competent tribunal declaring the election of the officer void” 65 ILCS 5/3.1-10-50(c)(3). The mayoral office cannot be declared vacant until the resolution of Agpawa’s ongoing court case.
[iv] Markham’s mayoral seat is not considered vacant. Blevins was appointed under a law intended for situations where the rightful mayor is only temporarily unavailable or absent 65 ILCS 5/3.1-35-35.
[v] Blevins was temporarily appointed under a law that presumes there is a rightful mayor collecting the mayoral salary. At best, Blevins is taking advantage of Markham’s unique situation to enrich himself.
[vi] Under Illinois law, the City Council determines all municipal officers’ and employees’ salaries. Individuals who are appointed to a municipal office are entitled to that office’s salary (65 ILCS 5/3.1-50-5); however, Blevins was explicitly not appointed but was elected by his fellow aldermen (65 ILCS 5/3.1-35-35), and therefore not entitled to the mayoral salary as an appointed officer.
[vii] $51,153.90 in mayoral salary remains in the city budget line item as of November 3 for the duration of 2017. The FY 2018 mayoral salary is appropriated at $95,000.
[viii] Blevins was temporarily appointed under a law that presumes there is a rightful mayor collecting the mayoral salary. At best, Blevins is taking advantage of Markham’s unique situation to enrich himself.
This investigation abides by Project Six’s Guarantee of Quality Scholarship.