Commentary by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
Well, there’s another financial scandal at the Monroe County School District. More than $20,000 has gone missing from the daycare program at Horace O’Bryant School. And apparently, School District officials have absolutely no clue as to what may have happened to the money. No clue at all. None. Was the money stolen or is this latest financial scandal just the result of sloppy bookkeeping? Nobody seems to know. The money is just missing. But based on the recent history of the School District when it comes to financial matters, this newest situation begs a logical question: What did the members of the School Board think would happen when former Finance Director Kathy Reitzel was fired back in 2009? A big part of Reitzel’s job was to uncover and expose financial discrepancies within the School District. In fact, you may recall that it was Reitzel who blew the whistle on Monique Acevedo’s theft of $413,000 in School District funds. Monique was the Adult Education Coordinator for the District and, at that time, was married to then-School Superintendent Randy Acevedo– who was also prosecuted for trying to cover up his wife’s theft. Reitzel’s work to help develop the legal case and her testimony in court resulted in felony convictions for both Randy in 2009 and Monique in 2010. Monique is still in prison, serving an eight-year sentence. Randy lost his job as School Superintendent and was on probation for three years. Had Kathy Reitzel not had the courage to step forward– and abject courage is what it took– Randy might still be Superintendent of Schools and Monique might still be stealing.
But even if you’ve been following this story, you may not realize that the Acevedo scandal was just one of a number of fraudulent activities in the School District uncovered by Reitzel and her department during her tenure with the School District. Back in January 2005, Reitzel discovered that a teacher at Coral Shores High School (CSHS) had set up a dummy company and was billing the district for services presumably performed by that company– $22,000 at that time. Reitzel hired a forensic auditor to investigate, and the auditor concluded that the teacher was guilty of misappropriation of public funds. The case was referred to the State Department of Education Ethics Committee. So what did the School Board do? Well, basically nothing– except recommend leniency for the teacher. Subsequently, the teacher was fined $1000 and placed on probation– and he continued to teach at CSHS. In 2008, Reitzel’s staff audited the internal accounts funds at Marathon High School and confirmed concerns by the principal that $3000 was missing. The employee responsible for dealing with the cash was transferred to another position, but remained employed. He was reportedly caught stealing again, and then a third time– and was finally allowed to resign. In January 2009, while auditing daycare funds at the elementary schools, Reitzel’s staff uncovered more than $2000 missing at Plantation Key. Investigators from the State Attorney’s Office determined that the bookkeeper had been skimming funds and she was charged with grand theft. She admitted guilt and was placed on probation for two years and was required to make restitution.
Would it seem unfair here if we asked if stealing is simply part of the culture within the School District? And another question: After what happened to Kathy Reitzel, why would any potential whistle-blower ever come forward again to report wrongdoing– like the current situation at HOB?! And still another question: Has the School Board’s amateurish approach to protecting the public’s money reached the point of being ridiculous? Prominent local attorney Bill Anderson thinks so. In the wake of the HOB day care scandal, Anderson resigned from the School District’s Audit and Finance Committee (AFC). That committee was formed after the Acevedo scandal to serve as an independent watchdog group. Anderson had been a member of the AFC since its inception. In his letter of resignation, Anderson pointed out that the committee has repeatedly addressed poor financial practices in the schools by recommending sound and simple solutions. But virtually nothing has happened as a result of those recommendations, Anderson said. The last straw, apparently, was that the School Board did not even consult the AFC when the financial shortages were discovered at HOB. Anderson referred to that scandal as “Public Embarrassment II.”
Reitzel filed a lawsuit in 2010 complaining that the School Board had violated the whistle-blower law and that the Board had breached her contract. But six years, three judges and three trial dates later, she is still waiting to present her case to a jury. In December 2013, Judge David Audlin cleared the way for the case to go to trial when he denied a request from School District lawyers to throw the case out of court. Last September, however, Judge Mark Jones reversed Audlin’s ruling; and he subsequently denied a motion for a re-hearing from Reitzel’s lawyers. So, last month, Reitzel appealed Jones’ ruling to the Third District Court of Appeal.
What is at issue here is far more than just an unlawful firing. The issue here is that School District officials not only fired the whistle-blower who discovered and reported Monique Acevedo’s theft to the chairman of the School Board, they also fired the prime witness whose testimony resulted in felony convictions for both Randy and Monique! Since this malfeasance of justice has been dragging on for so long, perhaps a brief timeline of how Kathy Reitzel became a whistle-blower– and what happened after that–would be informative. After reading this, see if you think Kathy Reitzel should have been fired– or promoted.
In January 2005, Kathy Reitzel became Director of Finance for the Monroe County School District. There had not been a Director of Finance since 2002. She reported to Dr. Mary Chambers, Executive Director of Business and Finance. Dr. Chambers retired in September 2005. That position remained vacant until August 2006– and during that period, Reitzel handled the financial duties previously handled by Dr. Chambers. In August 2006, Superintendent of Schools Randy Acevedo appointed Pedro Fraga to fill Dr. Chambers’ former position. Fraga was a former elementary school principal, coach and guidance counselor. He neither had the experience, education nor interest to deal with financial matters– so it fell to Reitzel to continue handling those matters. (In fact, Fraga was so incompetent in finance that, once Randy Acevedo was gone, Fraga was quietly demoted back to guidance counselor at an elementary school.)
Back in 2000, the School Board had authorized that key principals and directors be issued District credit cards– purchase cards or P-cards. At first, cards were issued to only 20 employees. But by 2009, that number had soared to 114 employees. And, apparently, it was common practice for these employees to use their cards for personal purchases– as long as they reimbursed the District. Monique Acevedo, as Adult Education Coordinator, had a P-card. In October 2007, Reitzel’s office manager brought to her attention receipts for two airline tickets that had been purchased on Monique’s P-card. It was later determined that the tickets were for her children to fly to North Carolina, where her parents lived. Reitzel took the receipts to Superintendent Acevedo– and he wrote a check on the spot to reimburse the District. When charges for additional airline tickets showed up on Monique’s card, Reitzel’s staff contacted Monique by email asking for either an explanation or reimbursement. Monique’s standard reply was reportedly, “It’s been taken care of.”
According to court records, no other questions concerning Monique’s P-card were called to Reitzel’s attention for more than a year. But that all changed in February 2009. By this time, charges like a satellite radio lease, a $1700 bed and airline tickets for Monique’s parents to fly to Key West were showing up. Randy would later produce a letter indicating that the satellite radio lease was for MARC House– (Monroe Association for Remarkable Citizens). But an investigation revealed that Monique had forged the letter and that the radio lease was actually for her son. Monique’s explanation for the bed was that it was for a special needs child at MARC House. But it only required one call to Bed & Chair Depot to find out that the bed had been delivered to the Acevedo residence. At this point, Reitzel ordered an audit of Monique’s P-card account– and her card was cancelled. On February 12, 2009, Reitzel went to Superintendent Acevedo’s office with 43 pages documenting questionable P-card purchases by Monique. Subsequently, Reitzel met with both Randy and Monique. At that meeting, Monique angrily told Reitzel that “this is the way it has always been”– referring to the personal use of P-cards. Reportedly, neither Randy nor Monique indicated that they intended to reimburse the School District for the fraudulent purchases.
So, at this point, Kathy Reitzel had a decision to make. She could do the right thing by blowing the whistle on the wife of her boss, the Superintendent of Schools– which would mean that she would be seriously risking her job. (And, as it turned out, losing her job was exactly what happened.) Or, she could just go with the flow by buying into the coverup– and allowing the stealing to continue. She chose to blow the whistle. On March 2, she met with School Board Chairman Andy Griffiths and gave him the 43-page report documenting Monique’s questionable purchases. Griffiths subsequently turned the documents over to the State Attorney’s Office (SAO). Over the next few months, Reitzel worked with SAO prosecutors and was the state’s key witness at Grand Jury hearings and at the trial of Randy Acevedo. Her testimony in that trial was apparently damning enough that Monique chose not to go to trial. She pled guilty and was sent to prison.
Then, inexplicably, School District leaders fired Kathy Reitzel! What in the hell were they thinking?! All of her personnel evaluations had been favorable. All of them. And the Board had only recently renewed her contract. It might also be interesting to note here that Monique Acevedo had two supervisors who routinely signed off on– approved– all of her P-card purchases. All of them. Neither were fired.
But now, a favorable ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal could, finally, allow her case to go to trial. Stay tuned.
Click here to read Kathy Reitzel’s story in her own words.
margiebargie 12/18/15 am:
“Well written article. It makes a number of excellent points. The most important being the chilling effect of Reitzel’s treatment on other employees who may be seeing things they need to report.
According to some figures I’ve seen, employee reports are the most common way to uncover fraud. It’s your most potent weapon. If the school board is serious about addressing this ongoing issue, they need to make it safe for employees to come forward.”
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