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BGA: Suburban school system accuses ex-board member of nepotism

Bridget Imoukhuede (left) and Emmanuel Imoukhuede (right) are being sued by Rich Township High School District 227 after the husband voted in 2014 to pay his wife more than $140,000 in back pay and attorney's fees. Facebook photo

By Casey Toner

When the Rich Township High School District 227 board was deciding in 2014 whether to award more than $140,000 in back pay and attorney’s fees to a former associate principal to resolve a retirement dispute, then-board member Emmanuel Imoukhuede sided with the 4-3 majority to approve the payout.

The former administrator getting the money? Imoukhuede’s wife, Bridget Imoukhuede.

Now, both are embroiled in another dispute — a lawsuit filed by District 227 to recover the money paid to Bridget Imoukhuede. The suit accuses Emmanuel Imoukhuede of violating the district’s nepotism policy, which says board members “will not participate” in employment decisions concerning their relatives.

Emmanuel Imoukhuede, 69, who lost his reelection bid last year, declined to comment. His wife, 66, didn’t return calls.

Their attorney says the school board was to blame because it counted Emmanuel Imoukhuede’s vote.

The financially struggling district — which so far has spent more than $51,000 on the suit and a related case — serves more than 3,000 students in Chicago Heights, Country Club Hills, Matteson, Olympia Fields, Park Forest, Richton Park, Tinley Park and University Park. It lost 728 students from 2011 to 2015 and has seen its yearly state funding decline by $5.4 million over the past six years.

On Aug. 6, 2013, the District 227 board suspended Bridget Imoukhuede without pay and moved to fire her for suspending and expelling students at the district’s alternative school, which she helped run, without authorization, records show.

The following day, she resigned and applied for her pension, which she began receiving a few months later.

But she also challenged her dismissal, and an Illinois State Board of Education hearing officer recommended overturning the District 227 board’s decision.

The district’s lawsuit contends that Bridget Imoukhuede wasn’t entitled to the hearing in the first place because she had retired. It also says she didn’t tell the hearing officer about her retirement.

Still, after getting the hearing officer’s recommendation, the District 227 board voted June 9, 2014, that Bridget Imoukhuede should get back pay and attorney’s fees, with Emmanuel Imoukhuede part of the 4-3 majority.

According to the board’s minutes of the meeting, Emmanuel Imoukhuede said he was just “following the recommendation from the hearing officer.”

The following month, the board voted along the same lines to pay Bridget Imoukhuede $109,792 in back salary for the 2013-2014 school year and $34,932 for attorney’s fees.

In July 2014, Olympia Fields resident Fred Veazy sued the district to rescind the votes and get the money back, citing the nepotism policy. After a Cook County judge ruled against him, he appealed, and the matter is now before the Illinois Appellate Court.

Veazy’s attorney, Clinton Krislov, says Emmanuel Imoukhuede “should have abstained from voting on his wife’s matter” even if the board otherwise would have been deadlocked.

At a school board meeting in October 2014, District 227 attorney John Relias raised concerns about Bridget Imoukhuede’s payout, according to interviews.

Bridget Imoukhuede later re-paid about $55,000 in pension money to the state.

The following month, the District 227 board — with Emmanuel Imoukhuede voting with the majority — fired Relias’ law firm, Franczek Radelet.

But after Emmanuel Imoukhuede was voted out of office in April 2015, the District 227 board rehired Franczek Radelet and decided to sue the Imoukhuedes. The suit says Bridget Imoukhuede was ineligible to receive the payout because she was retired and collecting a pension.

“We have to hold people accountable,” says Antoine Bass, the school board president, who opposed the payout to Bridget Imoukhuede in the prior votes. “We can’t let $100,000 go unchecked because it’s taxpayer dollars at the end of the day.”

The district also reversed its opposition to the Veazy lawsuit and decided to back his appeal.

District 227 has spent $51,248 in legal fees on the Imoukhuede lawsuit and the Veazy case, records show.

Casey Toner is an investigator for the Better Government Association.