(TNS) – Before Cheryl Brombolich was a councilwoman in Collinsville, Ill., she sent 131 text messages in a single day begging the finance director not to tell her boss, the city manager, that she once again had charged a personal purchase to a tax-free city account, claiming it was just a mistake, according to documents released by the city.
At the time, former City Manager Scott Williams was deciding whether to fire Brombolich as city clerk and director of operations.
“Just let me take care of it and act like u never saw it,” Brombolich wrote on Sept. 11, 2014, in a string of text messages to her friend and colleague, Finance Director Tamara Ammann. The texts were part of a file that a Madison County judge ordered the city to release to the Belleville News-Democrat under the Freedom of Information Act.
Brombolich, 53, was referring to her latest personal purchase using a city credit card or account. She’d done this at least 20 times over the past decade and had been warned twice about her continued personal use of city funds, the documents showed.
The practice of using city credit cards and accounts to make personal purchases — and possibly avoid paying sales taxes and interest — is prohibited by city policy. Brombolich, however, claims that it is a practice other city employees have engaged in as well, and a BND review of city credit card purchases found that six other department heads used their cards and reimbursed the city, four on repeated occasions.
Brombolich repaid all the money, according to city officials, and was told she could be fired if the practice continued.
“I’m begging you. I swear I am going to have a damn heart attack,” Brombolich wrote in a text to Ammann. “This has been hell on me. He won’t believe that it was another mistake.”
Ammann did not keep the personal charge a secret. Minutes after receiving the first text from Brombolich, she consulted with Williams, who was previously made aware of the charge when the Finance Department discovered it.
Williams and Ammann declined to comment for this story.
In a written statement to the News-Democrat, Brombolich said she did not ask Ammann to hide her latest personal charge from her boss. The charge was for postage to return Brombolich’s personal items using the city’s tax-free FedEx account.
“... I was pleading with her to let me be the one to tell him about a mistake others had made that I was being forced to pay for,” Brombolich wrote.
But Brombolich didn’t say she wanted to tell Williams about the FedEx charge until the 44th text she sent to Ammann that day, according to the documents.
“Please just see if he lets me come back and then I will tell him myself and not tell him that u even knew,” she wrote. In earlier texts, Brombolich pleaded with Ammann that Williams “doesn’t have to know.”
Brombolich said in the texts that her latest personal charge was a simple error and that she shouldn’t have to pay for it with her job.
Ammann: “Jamie got a FedEx statement that looks like it has a couple of delinquent charges ... Under Armour and Golf Discount.”
Brombolich: “... Those were returns that were to be paid by the people they were returned to. I have called both places and they were supposed to take care of them.”
Ammann: “We’re going to have to pay it to get our (FedEx) account reactivated. They are city expenditures, though?”
Brombolich: “No, they were mine but picked up at City Hall. Omg, this is going to do me in. This was a long time ago and I haven’t gotten any more notices so I assumed they took care of them.”
The texts from Brombolich continued:
“Come on Tammy. I almost feel like you owe me this one! I’m begging you.”
“... I can’t lose my job and my pension. I will lose everything. I promise I will take care of it. He doesn’t have to know. PLEASE. You know what everyone else has gotten away with. This isn’t fair.”
“U know this will seal my fate for sure. How can you do this to me? Please don’t.”
“If u tell him in the middle of all this I am doomed.”
At the time the text messages were exchanged, Brombolich was on administrative leave while Williams investigated her use of city money. Four days later, she resigned.
By resigning, Brombolich was able under state law to save her pension. She later successfully ran for City Council in the April 2015 election.
In a text to Brombolich, Ammann suggested retirement.
“I know it’s not much comfort, but the way to protect your pension would obviously be to retire,” Ammann wrote. “I won’t mention it again, but let me know if you want to talk about it. ...”
Brombolich said she’d been working with FedEx to clear up questions about the $110 charge. On the day Ammann confronted her about it, Sept. 11, 2014, Brombolich paid the delinquent charge.
The texts and other documents were compiled by Williams in an investigative file regarding Brombolich’s personal use of city credit cards and accounts going back to 2004. The documents were released after the city fought for eight months not to provide them. The BND filed suit and Madison County Associate Judge Don Flack ruled they were public records.
The documents showed that Brombolich routinely used city credit cards and tax-free accounts for personal purchases during her tenure as clerk. In some cases, she reported the purchases to the city; in others, the city discovered them months and even years later.
Brombolich says Williams assembled the documents to discredit her after he “forced” her to resign as city clerk.
“Williams’ file was never an investigation into my employment. It was compiled after my retirement — even after I filed to run and was elected to the City Council — and for the purpose of making me look bad. He succeeded.”
After Brombolich was elected to the City Council, two of her fellow council members — Nancy Moss and Jeff Kypta — stated during a press conference on the steps of City Hall that Brombolich attempted to conceal her personal use of a city credit card and city accounts, and that she asked Ammann to cover up the “misuse” of city funds.
They also accused Collinsville Mayor John Miller of violating the Illinois Gift Ban Act by accepting truckloads of dirt for his backyard from a company that had several city contracts. He didn’t pay for the dirt until after a complaint was filed by a city employee, the council members said.
“We would be part of a coverup, we felt like,” Moss said, explaining at the time why they were speaking out publicly.
Miller has declined to comment on Brombolich’s use of city credit cards and accounts, but at a July 13 City Council meeting, he said he paid for the dirt with more than “the dollars that I wrote on the check” because his integrity and character had been damaged.
“I have done nothing wrong. I fought for this county in Vietnam. I worked for the Fire Department for 31 years. I’ve been on this council 10 years. I have served with integrity,” Miller said during the meeting.
Moss said she believes that Brombolich’s use of the city’s credit card was a “betrayal of trust.”
“Cheryl had the authority to do certain things and she did the wrong thing ...,” she said in a previous interview.
Moss also called the string of texts between the two city officials “disturbing.”
“She was trying to pull Tammy down into her violations of policy,” Moss said. “Tammy, of course, did what she had to do: she went to Scott.”
While the practice violated city policy, there was no criminal investigation of Brombolich’s use of city funds for personal purchases. There was a police investigation in 2006 of Brombolich for alleged theft of Collinsville Lady Kahoks Basketball Booster Club money, but no charges were filed.
Brombolich has not denied that she used her city credit card to make personal purchases — a practice she said was widespread in City Hall. At the July 13 City Council meeting, she stated, “I was one of many that had personal charge on a city credit card,” reading from a statement.
On 20 separate occasions, from 2004-14, Brombolich used the city’s credit card and accounts for a total of more than $3,300 in personal purchases, the documents showed, ranging from athletic shoes to toiletries to a hotel reservation.
Former City Councilman Mike Tognarelli, who was defeated by Miller in his bid for mayor in the April election, said in an interview the evidence of Brombolich’s years of personal purchases was surprising.
“I couldn’t believe (it) never got caught,” he said.
Brombolich did not comment on the overall decade of personal purchases, but in her statement to the BND, she addressed the most recent charge to the city’s FedEx account.
“I have been consistently miscast as a thief when during the same billing cycle, another employee was engaging in more egregious misuse of a city credit card and only reimbursed after being prompted,” Brombolich wrote. She did not identify the employee.
Ammann, who wrote the city’s credit card policy for employees, said in an earlier interview that Brombolich brought personal purchases to the attention of the Finance Department and was no different than anyone else in that respect.
Brombolich, daughter-in-law of the late Gene Brombolich, former Collinsville mayor, had worked as a city employee for more than three decades when she resigned in September 2014.
Documents continued to be added to the investigative file on Brombolich as recently as April and May 2015 after she was elected to the City Council and before she was sworn in — but at least seven months after she resigned as clerk.
Brombolich said that’s proof that the file “was intended to harm me, not to protect the city.” She alleged that Williams only began assembling documents after she resigned.
Brombolich said in her statement to the BND that the file was compiled by Williams “for the purpose of making me look bad” and “to slander me.” Her working relationship with Williams was “always difficult,” she wrote.
“When he moved to City Hall, I had worked for the city for nearly 30 years. I was not afraid to share my knowledge,” she wrote. “I don’t know if it was because I am a woman, but my refusal to stop thinking for myself clearly irritated him.”
Brombolich stated Williams “carefully selected information and pieces of conversations to include in, and exclude from” the investigative file after he forced her to retire.
When asked why she waited until her 44th text to Ammann to mention she wanted to tell Williams about the FedEx bill, Brombolich claimed a portion of the conversation was intentionally excluded from the file. She said it was early in the conversation that she said she wanted to tell Williams.
Brombolich said in response to questions submitted by the BND that her intention in the texts was to “take full responsibility and accountability and inform Williams myself rather than use any intermediary.”
“I wanted to resolve this issue prior to discussing it with Williams because I felt Williams was looking for reasons to terminate me,” she wrote. She stated that she felt this way because she had twice been critical of Williams’ handling of some issues in the city.
Ammann’s understanding of what Brombolich wanted her to do is written in an email, which was included in the documents released by the city. She wrote that Brombolich had wanted her to keep the FedEx charge “a secret” from Williams.
“She’s more than a little upset with me for not keeping this a secret from you,” Ammann wrote in an email to Williams the same day as her text conversation with Brombolich. “I have no doubt that she’ll blame me for losing her job now.”
Sept. 9 Director of Operations and City Clerk Cheryl Brombolich is placed on administrative leave.
Sept. 11 Brombolich asks the finance director to hide from the city manager her personal use of a city account. The finance director declines and suggests Brombolich retire to protect her pension
Sept. 15 Brombolich announces her resignation
Prior to being put on administrative leave, the city discovered that Brombolich had used her city credit card for a hotel reservation during a personal trip with her daughter. Brombolich downplayed it, telling Ammann and Williams it was her “forgetfulness” that “got the charge on there.”
Brombolich explained in an email to Ammann, later forwarded to Williams, that she used the city credit card to hold the $283 reservation at a Holiday Inn hotel because she did not have enough money on her debit card to cover the cost. She was traveling with her daughter’s softball team, and on other reservations with the team that summer, she said she used her mother’s credit card. When the Holiday Inn asked whether she would like to keep the charges on the card, she agreed, thinking it was referring to her mother’s card, according to the email.
After receiving the forwarded email, Williams replied that using the city credit card was “clearly inappropriate” and issued a written reprimand. Less than three hours later, Brombolich contacted Ammann with accusations that other employees had used their city credit cards for personal purchases, too.
“Ok, I have gotten over the initial shock and now I’m just mad. I know this is putting you in a bad position, but if this same exact thing didn’t happen to (them), I want to know about it,” Brombolich wrote in an email. “... I’m not letting myself be bullied.”
The next day, Williams put Brombolich on leave and had the police chief escort her out of the building.
As most of you know, I have remained mostly silent about the character assassination against me due to a pending...
The News-Democrat reviewed documents related to city credit cards for 19 Collinsville employees from 2012-15 — Williams’ tenure — and found that Brombolich was among seven department heads who reimbursed the city for purchases for which city money could not be used.
Four of those directors, including Brombolich, made multiple purchases that required reimbursement, according to the documents obtained through a FOIA request.
Ammann has said personal purchases on city credit cards happen “rarely.”
“Because if it were routine, they’d have their card taken away because it’s against policy,” Ammann said in an earlier interview.
Cheryl had the authority to do certain things and she did the wrong thing ...
Brombolich stated at the July council meeting that other department directors who made personal purchases on city credit cards were “being protected by the city manager.”
“Since I was told by police department and other employees almost three years ago that the city manager was heard saying he would get rid of me when he became the full-time city manager, you are only learning about my issue because I was a target,” she said during the meeting. Williams was the Collinsville police chief prior to becoming city manager.
At the same meeting, the council voted not to renew Williams’ contract as city manager.
Council member Kypta said after Brombolich was elected to the council that he felt she was part of a move to get rid of Williams as city manager, and that it was “like a vendetta.” Brombolich denied that, but did vote against renewal of Williams’ contract, leading to his termination.
According to the city documents, evidence of the following personal purchases surfaced in Brombolich’s final year as city clerk and director of operations:
Brombolich’s personal use of city credit cards and accounts goes back at least to 2004, according to the documents.
For example, she charged $2,143 to former building inspector Bob Bohnenstiehl’s city credit card for Nike tennis shoes for a Collinsville High School sports team in 2004. Brombolich told former City Manager Hank Sinda that Eastbay was only supposed to hold — not charge — that order on the city credit card.
“But, it was 2 days before the girls’ first game, the shoes we had ordered were declared faulty and the company was not able to replace our order in time. This was the only way they were going to have shoes to play,” Brombolich wrote in a 2005 memo to Sinda.
She also used the city’s tax-exempt Walmart account to purchase $155 in personal items, including Pop-tarts, laundry detergent and a toilet seat, over three visits in 2004.
Brombolich bought kitchen and janitorial supplies for the city while doing her personal shopping, she explained in the memo to Sinda. She said she “had not thought about” the fact that she was not paying taxes on those personal items she purchased using the city’s tax-exempt accounts. Brombolich continued to use tax-exempt accounts for personal purchases in 2007 (at Shop ‘n Save) and 2014 (at FedEx and Amazon).
“I have paid for my personal items and as I told you, I will now do the city shopping on city time,” she wrote in 2005.
Sinda sent a memo to all city department heads regarding the personal use of city accounts after Brombolich had addressed her own personal purchases.
“This is a violation of IRS rules as city accounts are tax deductible and may jeopardize the city’s tax-exempt status,” he wrote.
Also in 2004, Brombolich said she used Bohnenstiehl’s city-issued card for gas on a trip with the high school after mistaking his credit card for her personal debit card.
“We were going to North Carolina for basketball nationals and I pulled the city credit card out of my wallet by mistake the first time I got gas, it looked exactly like my debt card,” she wrote. “... As you know, when you use a credit card in a gas pump, you don’t have to sign for anything so I just didn’t realize what card I was using.”
During the July council meeting, when addressing fellow council members’ accusations, Brombolich said the information being disseminated about her may not be reliable.
“People are going to believe what they want to believe,” she said. “Anyone can say anything they want to. They can post it on social media. They can print it in the newspaper. But that doesn’t make it true.”
©2016 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.