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Feds Charge 12 Detroit Principals in $1M Kickback Scheme Involving School Supplies

In its latest crackdown on school corruption in Detroit, the federal government today dropped a legal bomb on 12 current and former principals, one administrator and a vendor -- all of them charged with running a nearly $1-million bribery and kickback scheme involving school supplies that were rarely ever delivered.

By Tresa Baldas, Katrease Stafford, Kathleen Gray and Ann Zaniewski

In its latest crackdown on school corruption in Detroit,  the federal government today dropped a legal bomb on 12 current and former principals, one administrator and a vendor -- all of them charged with running a nearly $1-million bribery and kickback scheme involving school supplies that were rarely ever delivered.

At the heart of the alleged scheme is businessman Norman Shy, 74, of Franklin,  who is accused of paying $908,500 in kickbacks and bribes to at least 12 Detroit Public Schools principals who used him as a school supply vendor in exchange for money -- some for as little as $4,000, another for $324,000. He secretly did this for 13 years, scamming school after school to the tune of $2.7 million with the help of principals who benefited along the way, prosecutors allege.

The news of the corruption case comes at a critical time as the state grapples with fixing the finances of the struggling Detroit district, the largest school system in Michigan. DPS has been under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager since 2009 and has accumulated an operating deficit of at least $515 million.

Just last week, the Legislature passed $48.7 million in emergency funding to ensure that DPS doesn't run out of cash early next month, as well as put the district under the authority of a financial review commission to oversee the district's finances

"This is exactly why House Republicans were so adamant that strong fiscal oversight be a prerequisite to any additional state funding for Detroit's corrupt and broken school administration," said Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant in a news release Tuesday. "And it is why we will continue to insist that strong financial and academic reforms be a part of any long-term solution to decades of DPS failures,"

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade announced the sweeping charges at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, calling the case "a punch in the gut."

McQuade stressed that the charges have nothing to do with DPS's existing financial troubles, or the political debate surrounding whether the state should help the city's struggling school system.

"Public corruption never comes at a good time," McQuade said. "This case is not about DPS. It is not about emergency managers. It is about these 14 individuals who breached their trust."

McQuade noted that the charges stem from a two-year-old audit of the Education Achievement Authority, a state-formed agency that was supposed to oversee and help Detroit's most troubled schools. That audit raised red flags, including one that led to the eventual indictment of  former principal Kenyetta Wilbourn Snapp, who pleaded guilty to bribery two months ago and agreed to cooperate with the government in its prosecution against others.

Snapp, who was hailed as a once-rising education star and turnaround specialist, admitted to the Free Press in December that she pocketed $58,050 in bribes from a vendor and spent it on herself while working for the embattled EAA. Snapp, who is set to be sentenced June 1, faces up to 46 months in prison for bribery. Two other people have also pleaded guilty in that case -- a contractor who acted as middleman and a vendor.

McQuade would not say whether Snapp's cooperation led to any of today's charges, only that the EAA investigation revealed more evidence of wrongdoing by Detroit school officials.

Among those charged today is Clara Flowers, 61, of Detroit, an assistant superintendent of DPS's Office of Specialized Student Services. She is charged with pocketing $324,785 in kickbacks from Shy for using him as a school supply vendor.

The kickbacks came in the form of cash, gift cards and payments to contractors who put a new roof on Flowers' house, painted it and did gutter work.  Flowers first used Shy  sometime before 2009, when as principal of Henderson Academy she chose his company as that school's school supply vendor. She would continue to use Shy as a vendor when she became an assistant superintendent.

According to court documents, Shy maintained a ledger to keep track of how much money he owed Flowers in kickbacks. The two regularly met to discuss how much Flowers was owed for her favors, and Shy was careful not to get caught, disguising his payments to Flowers in a variety of methods such as checks payable to contractors who worked on Flowers' home, including one company that did painting and gutter work. Shy also used DPS money to help pay for a new roof on Flowers' house.

The Free Press attempted to contact attorneys for all 14 defendants. Only one offered to comment. Most were unavailable; two declined comment, saying it was too premature to discuss the case.

The one defense lawyer who did speak is Doraid Elder, who is representing Stanley Johnson, 62, the former principal of Hutchinson Elementary-Middle School, charged with accepting $84,170 in kickbacks from Shy.

"Let's not rush to judgment. These are merely allegations," Elder told the Free Press. " I don't want people to forget that he's put over two decades of his heart and soul into giving kids the best education possible."

According to court documents, Johnson ordered school supplies from Shy, then submitted false invoices to DPS, which in turn paid for goods that were rarely delivered. Shy would secretly funnel  money back to Johnson by issuing payments to sham companies that Johnson created to conceal the kickbacks, prosecutors allege.

Elder said Johnson is "obviously devastated by the charges"

."At times, he's reached in his own pocket and paid for things to help get the kids certain resources that they normally would not be able to get. He's had decades of a stellar record.  I'm sure this is not easy for the students, the parents nor the individuals charged."

Also charged are:

* Ronald Alexander, 60,  principal at Charles L. Spain Elementary, who is charged with pocketing $23,000 in kickbacks from Shy in exchange for using him as a school supply vendor.

* Beverly Campbell, 66, of Southfield, a former principal at both Rosa Parks School and Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School, who is charged with bribery. She is charged with accepting $50,000 in cash kickbacks from Shy, who oftentimes never delivered the goods to her school, but got paid anyway with the help of phony invoices signed by Campbell, the government alleges.

* Gerlma Johnson, 56, former principal at Charles Drew Academy, former principal at Earhart Elementary-Middle School and current principal of Marquette-Elementary Middle School, She is charged with accepting $22,884 in kickbacks from Shy.

* James Hearn, 50, of West Bloomfield, principal at Marcus Garvey Academy,  who is charged with accepting $11,500 in kickbacks from Shy.

* Tanya Bowman, 48, of Novi, former principal at Osborn Collegiate Academy of Math, Science and Technology. She is charged with accepting $12,500 in kickbacks from Shy.

* Josette Buendia, 50, of Garden City,  principal at Bennett Elementary School. She is charged with accepting $45,775 in kickbacks from Shy.

* Ronnie Sims, 55, of Albion, former principal at Fleming Elementary and Brenda Scott Middle School. He is charged with accepting $58,519 in cash kickbacks from Shy.

* Willye Pearsall, 65, of Warren, former principal at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School. She is charged with accepting $50,000 in kickbacks from Shy.

* Tia' Von  Moore-Patton, 46, of  Farmington Hills,  principal of Jerry White Center High School, is charged with accepting $4,000 in kickbacks from Shy.

* Clara Smith, 67, of Southfield, principal at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School, is charged with accepting $194,000 in kickbacks from Shy.

* Nina Graves-Hicks, 52, of Detroit, former principal of Davis Aerospace Technical High School. She is charged with accepting $27,385 in kickbacks from Shy.

McQuade said DPS and the defendants are cooperating. They were all charged in a document known as an "information," which is similar to an indictment, but does not involve a grand jury. Prosecutors often bring charges by way of an information in cases where the government believes a plea deal will be reached. McQuade would not comment on any prospective plea deals in this case.

The news shocked teachers at Bennett Elementary, where Buendia is a popular and respected principal. Many of them learned of her indictment this morning through Facebook or online news reports.

"It's pitiful that they're going after principals who are probably just doing what they need to do even if it might be a little bit unethical in order to provide the students in their schools with the supplies and materials that they need that district and the state should be providing us," teacher Cathy Brackett said. "They should be going after the big thieves who have come into the district under the guise of emergency managers and consultants who have skimmed not just thousands of dollars but millions of dollars away from our students and just move on to their next gig, seemingly without repercussions."

Brackett said the school has been well-run under Buendia.

"I think she's in touch with what's actually happening in the classroom, that she supports her teachers and students, that she's hands-on and always putting students' interests first. It's not just rhetoric with her. It's actual practice," Bennett said.

The charges angered retired federal Judge Steven Rhodes, who is serving as the transition manager for DPS.

"I cannot overstate the outrage that I feel about the conduct that these DPS employees engaged in that led to the charges," he said.

Rhodes said DPS has suspended business with Shy and all of his companies. He also said DPS has put new policies in place related to purchases, such as suspending all purchases by individual schools and requiring all school-based purchases to have central office approval.

"We want do whatever is necessary to prevent this from happening again," Rhodes said.

According to Rhodes, the six principals who are current DPS employees have been placed on unpaid administrative and replaced by new interim leaders. The other principals have already left the district.

News of the charges against the Detroit principals have triggered yet  more political controversy, and may complicate the deliberations over DPS in Lansing.

"Local officials in Detroit want more power and a handout from the state,"  Speaker of the House Cotter said in his statement.  "But House Republicans want assurances that nothing like this can ever happen again.  Serious financial and academic reforms, including state oversight, must be enacted in Detroit before one more dollar is spent trying to prop up this failing district."

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said the actions of the principals are simply unacceptable.

"This is further evidence of the need for reform and oversight of the schools in Detroit.  I'll be working with my colleagues in the House to strengthen the DPS legislation passed by the Senate in light of this development," he said.

The state House and Senate have come up with very different plans for DPS, which start at splitting the district in two -- the old district existing only to pay off the district's debt and the new district focused on educating children. The restructuring is expected to cost north of $715 million.

The Senate last week passed a comprehensive reform package, which includes a powerful new education commission and sets up a new A-F grading system to rate schools.

The House wants much stronger oversight over the district and have included controversial proposals that would limit collective bargaining for teachers and would move to a fully elected school board phased in over eight years.

(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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