Amtrak calls its annual Polar Express Train Ride a “magical experience.”
Now it turns out a Christmas-loving Amtrak employee used the event to make a $25,000 debt disappear in a new holiday episode of traditional Chicago graft.
Benjamin Sheets, 50, of Downers Grove is now the former head of Amtrak transportation at Union Station. He can be seen online raving about the scent of Christmas trees and his dream of owning a tree farm.
But he also faces a year or more in prison after pleading guilty in federal court Thursday to making false statements to the government. He admitted steering $30,000 in business from The Polar Express Train Ride event to his wife’s suburban photo company.
“I lied to the (Amtrak) inspector general about the work that was performed by my wife and how that work was awarded,” Sheets told U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras.
Sheets told the judge Thursday morning that he was still employed by Amtrak, though he acknowledged that could change. Hours later, an Amtrak spokesman told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Mr. Sheets is no longer employed at Amtrak.”
“The American people deserve fair and honest services from those entrusted to manage aspects of our nation’s passenger rail service,” Amtrak Inspector General Thomas Howard said in a statement. “Amtrak personnel who make false statements in an effort to achieve personal gain will be held accountable.”
Sheets’ guilty plea also cost him membership Thursday in the local Boy Scouts of America Pathway to Adventure Council, officials there said. On Facebook, Sheets’ primary interests appeared to include trains, scouting, Christmas and the Chicago Cubs.
Sheets also served as the business manager for his wife’s photo company, according to federal prosecutors. But the feds say he failed to disclose the conflict of interest.
The Polar Express Train Ride takes place in December and features festively decorated trains filled with actors re-enacting the train ride from the popular Christmas book and movie. Sheets sent his wife a schedule for the event in July 2016 and told her to research a “whole package deal for everything” a few months later, court records show.
Then, on Nov. 2, 2016, Sheets’ wife sent him an email laying out family debt exceeding $25,000, the feds say. Sheets allegedly replied in an email: “We need to write an agreement for Polar Express.”
That same month, Sheets awarded the Polar Express photography work to his wife’s company without following Amtrak’s procurement procedures, the feds say. The photo company sold 3,679 photos at $10 each in Union Station’s Great Hall last December, records show.
But the scheme began to unravel when Sheets’ supervisor encountered Sheets and his wife in the Great Hall and was “surprised” to see Sheets’ wife there, according to a 16-page plea agreement. The next month, Sheets learned of the inspector general’s investigation.
Sheets claimed the company running the Polar Express event had struck a deal with his wife’s business. He made arrangements for that company to pay his wife’s business $30,535 after billing a subcontractor, records show.
He also had phony documents drawn up to back it all up and then lied to the Amtrak inspector general’s agents in a March 6 interview.
Sheets’ sentencing is set for Feb. 27. He will likely face between 12 and 18 months in prison.