Cracking down on school corruption in Detroit, the federal government dropped a proverbial bombshell on 12 current and former principals, one administrator, and a vendor â€” all charged with running a nearly $1 million bribery and kickback scheme involving school supplies that were rarely delivered.
At the heart of the alleged scheme is a businessman: 74-year-old Norman Shy.
He’s 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 and other gifts.
Some were for as little as $4,000, but one was for $324,000. He did this secretly for 13 years, taking school after school for a ride to the tune of $2.7 million, with the help of principals who benefited along the way.
The Detroit district, the largest school system in Michigan, was already struggling. Detroit Public Schools has been under the control of an emergency manager since 2009 and has an operating deficit of at least $515 million.
Last week, the Legislature passed $48.7 million in emergency funding to ensure that DPS ddidn’t run out of money next month. It also put the district under the authority of a financial review commission to oversee the districtâ€™s finances.
â€œThis is exactly why House Republicans were so adamant that strong fiscal oversight be a prerequisite to any additional state funding for Detroitâ€™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.â€
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade announced the wide-ranging charges at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, calling the case “a punch in the gut.”
McQuade emphasized that the charges have nothing to do with DPS’ 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 arose during a two-year-old audit of the Education Achievement Authority, an effort to oversee and help Detroit’s most troubled schools. That audit raised alarm bells and led to the eventual indictment of former principal Kenyetta Wilbourn Snapp (above), who pleaded guilty to bribery two months ago and agreed to cooperate with the government in its prosecution against others.
She was once hailed as a rising star in education and was seen as a “turnaround specialist”.
She admitted to pocketing $58,050 in bribes from a vendor and spent it all on herself while working for the troubled EAA. She’s set to be sentenced June 1st and faces up to 46 months in prison for bribery. Two other people, a contractor who acted as middleman and a vendor, have also pleaded guilty in that case.
McQuade would neither confirm nor deny whether Snapp’s cooperation led to any of the charges against the other principals and administrators…only that the EAA investigation revealed more evidence of wrongdoing by Detroit school officials.
Among those charged today is 61-year-old Clara Flowers, an assistant superintendent of DPSâ€™s Office of Specialized Student Services. She’s 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 her house, painted it, and did work on her gutters. She first used Shy sometime before 2009, when, as principal of Henderson Academy, she chose his company as that school’s school supply vendor. She continued to use him as a vendor when she became an assistant superintendent.
Mr. Shy kept a ledger to keep track of how much money he owed her in kickbacks, and the two of them met regularly to discuss how much she was owed. He was careful not to get caught, disguising his payments to her in various methods, such as checks payable to contractors who worked on her home. He also used DPS money to help pay for a new roof on her house.
“Let’s not rush to judgment. These are merely allegations,” one attorney told a newspaper. “I donâ€™t want people to forget that [my client has] put over two decades of his heart and soul into giving kids the best education possible.”
Also charged are:
– 60-year-old Ronald Alexander, princpal at Charles L. Spain Elementary, who’s charged with pocketing $23,000 in kickbacks from Shy in exchange for using him as a school supply vendor.
– 66-year-old Beverly Campbell, a former principal at both Rosa Parks School and Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School, who’s charged with bribery. She’s accused of accepting $50,000 in cash kickbacks from Shy, who often never delivered the goods to her school, but got paid anyway, with the help of phony invoices signed by Campbell, the government alleges.
– 56-year-old Gerlma Johnson, former principal at Charles Drew Academy, former principal at Earhart Elementary-Middle School, and current principal of Marquette-Elementary Middle School. She’s charged with accepting $22,884 in kickbacks from Shy.
– 50-year-old James Hearn, the principal at Marcus Garvey Academy, who’s charged with accepting $11,500 in kickbacks from Shy.
– 48-year-old Tanya Bowman, 48, former principal at Osborn Collegiate Academy of Math, Science and Technology. She’s charged with accepting $12,500 in kickbacks from Shy.
– 50-year-old Josette Buendia, principal at Bennett Elementary School. She’s charged with accepting $45,775 in kickbacks from Shy.
– 55-year-old Ronnie Sims, a former principal at Fleming Elementary and Brenda Scott Middle School. He’s charged with accepting $58,519 in cash kickbacks from Shy.
– 65-year-old Willye Pearsall, a former principal at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School. She’s charged with accepting $50,000 in kickbacks from Shy.
– 46-year-old Tiaâ€™ Von Moore-Patton, the principal of Jerry White Center High School, is charged with accepting $4,000 in kickbacks from Shy.
– 67-year-old Clara Smith, the principal at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School, is charged with accepting $194,000 in kickbacks from Shy.
– 52-year-old Nina Graves-Hicks, a former principal of Davis Aerospace Technical High School. She’s 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 doesn’t involve a grand jury.
Prosecutors often bring charges this way when the government believes a plea deal will be reached, but McQuade wouldn’t comment on any prospective plea deals.
Detroit Public Schools has suspended all business with Shy and all of his companies. DPS has also 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.
The six principals who are current DPS employees have been placed on unpaid administrative and replaced by new interim staff. The other principals have already left the district.