Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY JON SEIDEL Staff Re­porter

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 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 run- ning 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.


Ben­jamin Sheets


Ben­jamin Sheets | FACE­BOOK

MICHAEL SNEED is on va­ca­tion

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