The Illinois Secretary of State’s office has asked the Atlanta, Illinois, library to pay back a $25,000 grant used for a remodeling project due to conflict of interest concerns with a library board member.
The Atlanta Public Library District received the Secretary of State’s Live and Learn grant in 2015 to remodel the Union Hall building, which it had leased. That building is owned by Bill Thomas, who is a member of the library’s board of trustees, said Board President Randy Brooks.
In a letter sent to Brooks on Oct. 23, the Secretary of State’s office said Thomas’ financial interest in the building presented a conflict of interest under the state’s Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act.
“This office finds that due to William Thomas’s financial interest in the building leased and contracted for during the term of this grant to be void pursuant to this Act,” wrote Amy Williams with the Office of the General Counsel. “Because the lease was void during the relevant time period, the Atlanta Public Library District failed to achieve and maintain compliance with the terms of the grant.”
The library was told to repay the grant within 90 days. Brooks said they plan to request an administrative hearing to contest the repayment and explain what happened.
The library also runs the Atlanta Museum. Brooks said the remodeling work, which has already been completed, was to make the Union Hall building more accessible to the adjacent museum. The Union Hall building is used for programming and asks as a tourist center, Brooks said.
The library had sought to buy Union Hall but didn’t have the money, choosing to lease it instead, Brooks said. Thomas recently told the board that he’ll be donating the building to the library, Brooks said. It would “probably” be a challenge for the library to repay the money, if it’s hearing is not successful, he said.
Thomas declined to comment Thursday.
“Perhaps after the hearing with the Secretary of State, I'll have a comment,” he said in an email.
The potential conflict of interest was initially brought to the Secretary of State’s attention by a website called Illinois Leaks, also known as Edgar County Watchdogs, said Secretary of State spokesperson David Druker. The website has written extensively about the Atlanta library in recent months.
The Illinois Secretary of State’s office will occasionally have grant money returned, “but this one is a little unusual,” said Druker.
“It doesn’t happen very frequently,” he said.
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