There was a personnel earthquake in the summer of 2020 at the Teachers’ Retirement System in Springfield.
Ultimately, five high-ranking employees were removed from their positions, including executive director Richard Ingram. The tumult generated clouds of uncertainly that only recently started to clear, revealing improper and possibly criminal behavior.
Although mum at first, TRS officials recently released their first lengthy statement about what occurred, disclosing that a new employee purposely maintained a conflict of interest that he falsely claimed to have ended.
Shortly before the TRS statement was issued, the state’s Office of Executive Inspector General released a redacted report disclosing that former tech employee Jay Singh falsely claimed to have terminated ties with a family-owned business and then manipulated hiring to benefit employees working for his business and with him.
While emphasizing the scandal did not affect payments to retirees, TRS spokesman Dave Urbanek said the TRS paid about $800,000 to Singh’s business but cannot say what portion of that sum was improperly spent.
“The hiring process was manipulated, but (Singh) did hire legitimate software developers,” said Urbanek.
The inspector general’s report also confirmed a previous news report that the TRS hired two outside law firms to investigate what occurred. Reporter Bruce Rushton disclosed in the Illinois Times that in October 2020, the TRS paid about $700,000 to two law firms to “probe (TRS) brass” and that the FBI had requested a copy of their reports.
Urbanek said the TRS, as required by law, brought the matter to the attention of the Sangamon County State’s Attorney’s office.
The OEIG said its report focused solely on “Singh’s conflict of interest between” his TRS duties and “his involvement with Singh 3” as well as the “manner in which TRS handled the conflict of interest issue.”
The OEIG report states the scandal dates back to 2018, when the TRS “began the process of constructing a new pension system that it called the Gemini Project.” Urbanek said the Gemini system recently went online.
That required hiring outside information technology professionals. Singh and his company — Singh 3 Consulting — were initially hired as a contractor. But in 2019, the TRS hired Singh as a permanent employee, the hiring predicated on Singh terminating his relationship with his company.
He told the TRS he had done so. But no one apparently ever checked, because subsequent investigations revealed Singh remained president and chief executive officer.
After being brought on board, Singh began to intervene in the hiring processes for subcontractors even though he was not supposed to be involved. The report stated he would tell members of the hiring committee who to interview and to give those he recommended “the highest score” for their interviews.
The OEIG reports expressed dismay that TRS officials relied solely on Singh’s word that he had severed ties with Singh, calling their lack of followthrough “disconcerting.”
“Nor does it appear that anyone ever considered whether a conflict continued to exist if Mr. Singh’s relatives took over the business,” the report states.
The TRS statement sent to its members included more details than the OIEG report.
It stated that a number of suspicious and alarmed TRS employees filed complaints with the TRS administration and the OEIG about Singh’s questionable conduct.
As a consequence, the TRS board launched an independent investigation in late 2019.
“In 2020, the (TRS board) terminated the system’s chief financial officer” and “accepted the resignations of the executive director, chief information officer in charge of technology, general counsel and chief human resources officer.”
Jana Bergschneider, a 24-year TRS veteran, was the employee who was dismissed. The others who were removed were executive director Wagner, general counsel Marcy Dutton, chief human resources officer Gina Larkin and Singh.
The board also “terminated the contracts of multiple outside consultants and developers that played a part in the scheme” and placed them on a “prohibited contractor list.”
To prevent further misconduct, the TRS also changed procedures and adopted changes in policy.
While acknowledging the scandal was “deeply disappointing,” the TRS said “if there is a bright spot in all of this,” it is the “courage of eight TRS staff members” who filed complaints against Singh.
“TRS is a better place today because of them,” the TRS said.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at email@example.com or 217-393-8251.