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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pulaski County Special School District allegedly mishandled federal funds for Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims

State legislators blasted the Pulaski County Special School District board and administrators Friday morning, after the Division of Legislative Audit releases the results of a year-long investigation.

"It's time Pulaski County Special School District got taken over if this is the kind of foolishness going on down there," State Sen. Kim Hendren said in the DLA meeting Friday morning.

Last year, KARK 4 reported first about how the district overpaid outgoing superintendent James Sharpe by about $80,000.  Shortly after, the board unanimously voted to launch the audit. 

Sharpe returned the money but then acting superintendent Rob McGill requested district personnel double check his compensation and auditors discovered Sharpe was overpaid $17,203 during his tenure. The district is now pursuing legal action to recoup the funds.

Auditors also discovered Sharpe was paid $7,836 worth of unallowable expenses, which is due back to the district.  These expenses include duplicate charges, meals and conference registration for family members, gratuities and alcoholic beverages.

Investigators examined the financial records from March 2004 through Feb. 19, 2010.  The report has been Pulaski County Special School District.

Past and present school board members were also found to have received unallowed or questionable expenses and several may still have to pay the district back.  Auditors report Mildred Tatum could owe up to $2,788 and Gwen Williams could owe $619.  Past board member Pam Roberts could have to pay up $270.

Several sources say Tatum was the board member who went and saw "The Color Purple" on Broadway on the taxpayers' dime.  Sources say she's also the board member who charged $320 for a two night stay at the Peabody Hotel in Little Rock, though Tatum is a resident of the county.

Auditor Kim Williams told legislators there was a conference there at the time, but as a resident, Tatum could not be reimbursed for that expense.

Tatum wrote that she was "always accessible" to the superintendent for him to review any "questionable" expenses.  She noted in her 27 years as a board member, that had not happened.

Other board members have already paid the district back:  Charlie Wood paid $36 and Danny Gililland paid $149.  Board member Bill Vasquez has not accepted any travel reimbursements in his tenure.  He explained to KARK that he would not accept taxpayer money for travel while the schools in his zone are in disrepair.

The audit also uncovered two employees who allegedly stole a combined total of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

James Diemer pleaded guilty to stealing $439,745.  In a five year period, auditors discovered he purchased 223 tool kits, generators, radios and dozens of other items.  Williams said Diemer would buy them in small amounts and would sign off on the invoices, knowing that no one would double check his invoices.  He will be sentenced in federal court in June.

Rosalind Taylor, who worked for the district as a bookkeeper for less than a year, was arrested in March after more than $31,000 disappeared from the Jacksonville High School activity fund in a five month period.  She's on administrative leave without pay.

PCSSD also allegedly mishandled federal funds designated for Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims.   They were purchased by a high school home school counselor and approved by Brenda Bowles, the assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services.  The purchases included $311 worth of women's undergarments from Dillard's, $464 worth of athletic apparel at Lady Foot Locker and $194 at Finish Line for two pairs of Air Jordan shoes.

The report also states the district paid a communications vendor $320,301, without a bid or a contract.  The report also found questionable overtime practices for maintenance workers, to the tune of $193, 279.

KARK 4 also reported last summer that the district fired a lawn service company for not keeping up the grounds as they should have been.  Records show that company was overpaid by approximately $40,000.

Auditors also found other issues within the district: upper management being out of the office without cause, board members receiving goods and services from the district and personnel for matters not related to the district, careless measures over the food warehouse, and district equipment checked out for personal use.

They also found that bid laws were not followed, a lack of monitoring to ensure policies and procedure were adhered to, travel and purchasing policies were not followed, and administrative staff and the board did not exercise proper fiscal oversight responsibility or provide safeguards to prevent and detect misappropriation of funds.

Acting Superintendent Rob McGill says the district is not perfect, but said they are "100 percent" better now than a year ago.  He said new policies are in place and procedures are being followed.  Incoming Superintendent Dr. Charles Hopson was grilled by legislators, but he promised he was in it "for the long haul" and intended to recoup any money owed to the district.

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