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Questions raised again over Berwyn hardware store’s lucrative government business

School District 103 stands 4100 Joliet Avenue Lyons IL. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

School District 103 stands at 4100 Joliet Avenue in Lyons, IL. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

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Updated: September 26, 2013 6:21AM

It’s known as the mom-and-pop hardware store that got $3 million in business from the Town of Cicero — even selling it Chuckles the Clown decorations.

Now questions are being asked about Lembke & Sons True Value’s cozy relationship with a Lyons school district.

And the Lyons School District 103 school board is considering auditing a roofing project particularly lucrative to the owner of the Berwyn hardware store, Alan Lembke.

The replacement of the roof cost the district at least four times what was originally estimated. There was no bidding process, and Lembke’s and a separate company apparently connected to the hardware store’s president received most of the business for that project, records show.

Lembke’s has done well with the school district, taking in more than $800,000 over the last six years.

At the helm of the roofing project was the school district’s director of maintenance, Tom Sheehy.

He defended Lembke’s work and called the audit a “political witch hunt.” He said the roof job cost more than anticipated because the project became a bigger job.

Sheehy acknowledged that he and Lembke are pals.

“We’ve become friends over the course of time doing business. He’s a good man. I like him,” Sheehy said of Lembke.

Lembke couldn’t be found at the hardware store or at home on Friday. He did not respond to messages left for him.

One of the companies that worked on the roofing project, A1 Building Maintenance and Plumbing, lists as its business address Lembke’s Darien home, according to invoices obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Besides those invoices, A1 has little in the way of typical business records.

It doesn’t have a business license in Darien.

A1 is not listed in the local phone book.

A Google search doesn’t turn up anything about A1.

Nor is it incorporated in the state of Illinois.

A1 and the hardware store appear to have netted $172,420 in work and supplies provided to the 2012 Edison Elementary School roof project, according to school district billing records, some of which were amended by hand. That’s 62 percent of the total cost of the project. The records provided by the school district regarding the roofing project indicate that it cost nearly $278,000.

Sheehy and some school board members dispute that total amount. Sheehy said the entire project cost closer to $152,500.

School officials could not offer an explanation for the discrepancies.

Officials in the Lyons school district also plan to audit a middle school renovation that cost more than $7 million. Lembke does not appear to be involved in that project, records show.

Officials, including the school board president, have publicly downplayed the audit. Supt. Mary Jo Vladika said it’s “nothing unusual” and insisted the board simply wants “to understand how the final bill happened.”

Board member Mark Camasta said, “We’d like to make sure our administrators are as accountable to us as we think they should be.”

Officials said they want an audit because the projects were so expensive.

Board members have questioned the district’s dealing with Lembke’s before, but were satisfied when Sheehy presented a price comparison for products regularly purchased.

Longtime board member Joanne Schaeffer said the store is a local vendor that has “good prices and in some cases, better than what we would get from Lowe’s, Menards, Home Depot.”

She also pointed to the store’s goodwill over the years — especially when the district was broke and couldn’t pay its bills.

“They carried us to the tune of $150,000 to $200,000 . . . they carried us for a long time until we were able to start paying them back. Now, Home Depot is not going to do that, neither is Lowe’s,” said Schaeffer, who has been on the board since 1979.

Lembke’s store was also at the center of an investigation by the Town of Cicero’s inspector general. Cicero has spent more than $3 million at the hardware store since 2005, according to records reviewed by the Sun-Times.

The inspector general, James Klosak, last year accused several Cicero department heads of befriending and socializing with the store’s president, “creating an atmosphere of collusion, and giving an unfair advantage to the vendor.”

Cicero spokesman Ray Hanania suggested earlier this year the investigation by Klosak could lead to criminal charges. As of this week, though, Hanania said nothing has changed.

The town is still shopping at Lembke’s.

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