Monday, November 21, 2005

Another School Corruption Probe

Yet another reason to continue to vote no on school referenda. Corruption must be ruled out before more tax dollars are unwisely spent. Below you will find two articles on school corruption

Grand jury demands records from all Suffolk school districts


November 18, 2005

A Suffolk grand jury investigating school corruption has ordered every district in the county to turn over thousands of documents, including audits and budgets, administrator salaries and perks, and more than 100 annual state reports on spending and programs.

The county's 70 school districts earlier this week began receiving the grand jury subpoenas, which seek four years' worth of records detailing virtually every aspect of the districts' operations. The districts have until the end of the month to comply.

Robert Clifford, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, declined to comment yesterday.

After a year of school financial scandals across Long Island that so far have resulted in the arrests of 16 people, Spota in September empaneled a special grand jury to investigate fiscal mismanagement in school districts. The panel is also probing Medicaid fraud.

The volume of records being sought stunned some local school officials yesterday, particularly coming only a few months after the federal Department of Education and the Justice Department asked every Long Island school district for computerized spending records dating back five years.

"I think people are, at this point, sort of feeling 'what's next?'" said Gary Bixhorn, the chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, the regional cooperative serving local school districts.

The grand jury's subpoena is staggering in scope: Besides budget and audit reports from 2001-02 to 2004-05, the panel seeks enrollment figures and every report that districts must file under Section 2117 of the state Education Law for the same period.

That state law covers more than 100 different annual reports that detail everything from construction spending and transportation costs to drop-out prevention programs and bilingual services.

"We'll be more than happy to supply what they've asked for ... and after that, it's in their hands," James Sullivan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in South Huntington, said in a phone message he left for a reporter yesterday.

Christopher Gallagher, chairman of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said he and his colleagues understand they are under increased scrutiny.

"They are interested in the information and we have nothing to hide," said Gallagher, also superintendent in Southold.

State, local and federal officials have been intensely focusing on Long Island school spending since an $11.2-million embezzlement scandal exploded in the Roslyn district in February 2004. The state comptroller's office is auditing more than 20 local districts, and a new state law requires all school board members to undergo financial training.

"Everything is like, 'let's turn it up a notch,' " said Vinnie Cullen, partner in the auditing firm of Coughlin, Foundatos, Cullen & Danowski of Port Jefferson Station, which works for more than 70 Long Island districts. "You get a letter from the external auditor, that's no good. Then, you get a letter from the state comptroller, that's worse. Then you get a letter from a grand jury - and that's an even bigger deal.

"It seems like every time you turn the corner, here it is again," Cullen said. "But ultimately, all these people watching, it's a good thing."

Third Sauk Village school official arrested.

By Kati Phillips
Daily Southtown

A third Sauk Village school official was arrested Sunday, just two days before jailed Supt. Thomas Ryan is expected to plead guilty to fleecing the second-poorest school district in Cook County, sources close to the investigation say.

Buildings and grounds supervisor Edward Bernacki, 46, of Mokena, turned himself in to authorities at 11 a.m. at Circuit Court in Maywood.

He will appear in court today to face charges of official misconduct, bribery and class X felony theft, the latter punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Bernacki is accused of stealing more than $100,000 from Community Consolidated School District 168 via a no-bid lighting contract, ghost work and double billing.

There was "work he was paid for that he didn't do, and some work that was never done or done by other employees," said Assistant State's Attorney Sandra Navarro.

Bernacki's arrest appears to be the final one in a months-long investigation into misconduct, bid-rigging and theft at District 168 that was prompted, in part, by revelations in a Daily Southtown investigation published last spring.

Other officials charged

First charged was then-school board president and grandmother Louise Morales, who was indicted in August on 17 counts of theft, misapplication of funds and official misconduct. She pleaded not guilty.

Next came Ryan, acknowledged by prosecutors as a ringleader who demanded kickbacks from employees who knew of his financial schemes.

Held without bail since August because prosecutors believe he posed a threat to witnesses, Ryan is expected to plead guilty Tuesday, sources said.

Ryan is charged with theft of more than $100,000, intimidation, communication with a witness, harassment of a witness, obstruction of justice, bribery and official misconduct.

Though terms of the plea deal have not been released, sources say it includes his resignation from District 168 and the nullification of his contract, worth a potential $1.6 million over five years.

Ryan recruited Bernacki in 1991 to be head custodian at District 168. Both had worked at Posen-Robbins School District 143-1/2.

Vendor dropped after audit

A business partner and friend to the superintendent, Bernacki made the third-highest salary at District 168 and pulled in thousands of dollars a year apparently performing side jobs after hours.

Since 2000, Bernacki's base salary increased from $60,320 to $74,844, according to district documents. His company, E&M Associates, billed the district anywhere from $1,005 to $81,297 a school year for extra maintenance work since 1995, invoices show.

E&M Associates was dropped from the vendor list last school year after a routine audit for 2003-04 showed a $72,000 lighting contract was steered toward Bernacki and his company without going to bid as required by law.

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