Housing authority’s dealings with Morning Star Media

A month ago Ryan Weckerly, president of Morning Star Media, Ltd., agreed to plead guilty in federal court to charges related to a $3 million-plus kickback scheme.

Several units of local government have paid Morning Star over the past decade. City of Sycamore gave the company TIF money to help it settle in new digs downtown. City of DeKalb coughed up more than $30,000 as part of a rebranding scheme that included creation of the city’s current logo. Some public bodies use(d) them for website design. Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb (HACD) sought Morning Star’s services to help present a different way of looking at the organization and the people it serves.

Who is Morningstar?

What is locally known as MorningStar or Morningstar is a sort of collective of at least three corporations and assumed names of two of them. The common denominator is Ryan Weckerly as the president or manager of each. This includes Morning Star Media Group, Ltd.; Morningstar Interactive, Inc. aka Invironments Magazine; and Blank Slate Media, LLC aka Blank Slate Ads. Blank Slate Media/Ads has been reported as the company Weckerly used in the kickback scheme, is the newest of the three corporations and was organized in 2015.

In this post, we’ll use the more customary presentation “Morningstar” to denote Weckerly’s enterprises generally.

Open Meetings and Freedom of Information

HACD has particularly attracted the attention of city watchers for its relationship with Morningstar within a larger context of problems unearthed with Open Meetings Act violations and HACD’s chronic inability to produce complete vendor contracts and payment records when requested under Freedom of Information Act.

I asked HACD for records of payments to Morningstar and the response didn’t make a lick of sense initially. HACD put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) in late 2016 and meeting minutes of January 2017 included the announcement of the award to Morningstar, yet payments to Morningstar didn’t start until 2018. Turns out the contract resulting from Request for Proposal (RFP) 16-040 involved the services of three Weckerly companies that were invoiced and paid separately: Morning Star Media for website and social media, Invironments Magazine for stories and ads in the magazine of that name, and Blank Slate Ads for advertising on billboards and bus shelters.

Invoices arrived sporadically and sometimes months late. The HACD executive director commented in an email that Morningstar had a “horrible accounting and billing system.” Despite this, the payment records indicate HACD stuck with Morningstar until well into 2019.

Records destruction enters the picture

Once the equation “Blank Slate = Morningstar” was solved, one could see HACD had begun paying Blank Slate Ads months before putting out the 2016 RFP. Because of this established relationship — paired with favoritism shown earlier to another contractor, an IT provider — I have attempted to obtain the proposals from Morningstar’s three competitors. HACD, which has not yet produced the requested documents, is seeking state approval to destroy the competitors’ proposals, so the concern now extends beyond Freedom of Information Act violations and potentially involves the Illinois Local Records Act as well.

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The above doc is the records disposal request, and Application Item 7 shows the documents — “unsuccessful bids only” that HACD is seeking approval to destroy. It’s dated September 15 and was sent to the state the same day, which is quite a coincidence since my second plea for the Morningstar competitors’ proposals was September 14. I would like to see approval of the disposal certificate postponed and my FOIA request fulfilled, though my actual hypothesis is they’ve already shredded the documents, and approval after the fact is their cover.

More:

Below: letter from DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato to HACD in August regarding its violations of the Open Meetings Act.

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Below: HACD executive director’s email in which she comments on Morningstar’s accounting and billing.

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