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Government, Politics & Issues

Columbia City Council Picks Replacement For Mayor Who Resigned After Federal Indictment

Columbia City Clerk Wesley Hoeffkin, left, is shown swearing in Ward 3 Alderman Gene Ebersohl as acting mayor on Wednesday night at a special meeting streamed live on Facebook.
City of Columbia
Columbia City Clerk Wesley Hoeffkin, left, is shown swearing in Ward 3 Alderman Gene Ebersohl as acting mayor on Wednesday night at a special meeting streamed live on Facebook.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

It was a quiet and somber meeting that lasted only about four minutes.

On Wednesday night, Columbia City Council members elected former Ward 3 Alderman Gene Ebersohl as acting mayor.

Ebersohl replaces longtime Mayor Kevin Hutchinson, who resigned Monday after being indicted last week by a federal grand jury for allegedly lying to investigators about referral commissions he received on city insurance contracts.

Ebersohl will serve in the position until Columbia residents choose a new mayor in the April 6 election.

There was no discussion at the hastily-called special meeting and no comments by Ebersohl, beyond his taking the oath of office from City Clerk Wesley Hoeffkin.

“I, Eugene J. Ebersohl, do solemnly swear that I will support the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state of Illinois, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of mayor of the city of Columbia, Illinois, according to the best of my ability,” he repeated.

Hoeffkin shook Ebersohl’s hand before a smattering of applause.

Residents watched on Facebook

More than 600 people watched the meeting, which was streamed live on Facebook. There were two “likes” and no comments as of Thursday morning.

Columbia City Council elected former Ward 3 Alderman Gene Ebersohl, left, to serve as acting mayor on Wednesday night following the resignation of former Mayor Kevin Hutchinson.
Columbia City Council elected former Ward 3 Alderman Gene Ebersohl, left, to serve as acting mayor on Wednesday night following the resignation of former Mayor Kevin Hutchinson.

Seven aldermen attended the meeting in person while Ward 4 Alderman Steve Holtkamp joined via Zoom. Ward 1 Alderman James Agne made the motion to elect Ebersohl, Ward 4 Alderwoman Mary Ellen Niemietz seconded and seven voted in favor. Ebersohl abstained.

Aldermen and other city officials wore masks during the meeting due to COVID-19 restrictions. Ebersohl and Hoeffkin removed their masks for the oath of office.

City Administrator Doug Brimm announced Hutchinson’s resignation in a news release on Monday afternoon. It referenced a letter the former mayor wrote to the Columbia City Council.

“It is with a heavy heart, but due to the recent events, I feel it is in the best interest of the City and my family for me to immediately resign my position as Mayor,” the letter stated.

Hutchinson hasn’t responded to BND requests for comment through email or voicemail at City Hall since the indictment. He was earning a $22,950 annual salary in the position, which is considered part time.

Hutchinson was finishing his fourth term as mayor. He announced last summer that he wouldn’t run for re-election in April.

Hoeffkin and candidate Bob Hill are vying for the position

Arraignment on March 22

On Feb. 24, a grand jury indicted Hutchinson in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in East St. Louis. His arraignment and first appearance are scheduled for March 22.

Hutchinson is charged with one count of making a false statement to the federal Southern Illinois Public Corruption Task Force, also referred to as the Metro-East Public Corruption Task Force.

That’s a felony with a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison.

State law prohibits elected city officials from “being financially interested, directly or indirectly, in any contract, work or business of the municipality,” according to the indictment. An ethics law also requires them to disclose their financial interests with their county clerks.

Hutchinson works as a director with St. Louis-based C.J. Thomas Insurance Co., according to its website. His bio states that he joined the company in 1993.

The federal indictment doesn’t mention C.J.Thomas. It describes Hutchinson as a licensed insurance agent who owned a closely-held Illinois corporation called BMC Associates Inc.

The city of Columbia provides health-insurance coverage for employees and also contracts for property/casualty loss insurance, according to the indictment.

“Unbeknownst to the city council or the city manager, Hutchinson and his corporation, BMC Associates, Inc., received referral commissions from the insurance contracts that the city of Columbia placed with MRCT and ICRMT,” the indictment states.

MRCT is now part of OneDigital, a health, retirement, wealth and human-resources firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. ICRMT stands for Illinois Counties Risk Management Trust.

Federal indictment background

The federal indictment gave the following background on the Hutchinson case:

  • As an elected municipal official and a public officer, the mayor was prohibited under the Illinois Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act from being financially interested, directly or indirectly, in any contract, work or business of the municipality.
  • The Illinois Governmental Ethics Act required him to truthfully complete an annual Statement of Economic Interests and file it with the county clerk.
  • On June 28, 2018, Hutchinson allegedly filed a false Statement of Economic Interests with the Monroe County clerk, stating that he didn’t have a personal financial interest, directly or indirectly, in any contract, work or business of the municipality.
  • The Southern Illinois Public Corruption Task Force opened a federal investigation to determine whether Hutchinson violated federal law after learning that he had received referral commissions from a health-insurance policy for city employees.
  • The task force consisted of agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service/Criminal Investigations and a representative of the Illinois State Police.
  • On or about March 20, 2019, Hutchinson “did willfully and knowingly make, and cause to be made, materially false statements and representations ... by falsely telling a Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent and a federal Task Force Officer that his only interest in MRCT’s contract with the City of Columbia was in his official capacity as the Mayor of the City of Columbia.

Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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