Bad news hits Chicago Public Schools hard again when it was announced that five men, at least one of them a former Chicago Public Schools employee, stand accused of stealing more than $870,000 from two city high schools by fraudulently billing for goods and services that were often never delivered.
According to authorities the theft occurred between late 2009 and early 2014. This is just one more thorn in controversy ridden district, whose financial woes were spotlighted Wednesday by a downgrade of its debt to junk status. This the worse time to be revealed since District chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett is on leave amid a federal investigation into a $20.5 million no-bid contract given to one of her former employers and has remained mute.
The alleged theft renews long-standing concerns over the district’s ability to scrutinize its tens of thousands of employees and multibillion-dollar budget. It points to a glaring issue concerning the institutions ability to manage the massive budget demanding command in knowledgeable hands just when the Chicago Teacher Union contract os up for negotiation. It doesn’t look good when the city says that it doesn’t have the money the union is demanding. A CPS spokesman said the district couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation but asserted it “has already taken proactive steps to prevent any similar incident from occurring in the future.”
The charges stem from a joint investigation of the Chicago Public Schools inspector general and Cook County state’s attorney’s office. The alleged theft was laid out in the IG office’s 2014 report, which concluded a CPS operations employee “orchestrated multiple fraudulent purchasing and reimbursement schemes that resulted in the theft of $876,427” between late 2009 and early 2014.
Named in arrest warrants were Jermaine Robinson, 36, of Chicago; Sidney Bradley, 46, of Chicago; Jonathan McKinney, 38, of Chicago; Albert Bennett, 49, of Carpentersville; and Paul Simmons, 55, of Calumet City, according to Cook County court records.
Court records show that all five were charged with felony theft of government property. Cook County Judge Nicholas Ford on Tuesday set bail at $400,000 for Robinson and $200,000 for Bradley, McKinney, Bennett and Simmons.
Most of the alleged theft occurred at Clark High School in the South Austin neighborhood on the West Side, sources said. The alleged scheme also involved Gage Park High School on the Southwest Side.
Robinson was listed in CPS employee records as the school operations manager at Gage Park from 2009 to fall 2013. Records show he also worked part time at Clark during at least some of that period.
Robinson resigned in January 2014 and was placed on the district’s “do not hire” list later that year, the district said.
Criminal charges in the case have been expected for some time. The IG’s investigation looked at seven CPS employees and eight business owners, according to a report issued in January.
The Chicago Board of Education also approved a “warning resolution” against Clark High School Principal Beulah McLoyd in August 2014, saying she “engaged in unsatisfactory conduct.” The resolution provided no specifics. McLoyd remains the school’s principal, according to its website.
According to district records, McLoyd was an assistant principal at Gage Park before she took over at Clark.
In April, the board voted to bar a group of 10 businesses and individuals connected to the investigation from doing business with the district.
A total of six CPS employees were either terminated or resigned as part of the investigation, according to the IG report.
The IG concluded the thefts were carried out through a system of fake purchase orders and falsified invoices from businesses that in turn kicked back money to a district employee.
In 2012 and 2013, the report said a school operations employee — identified only as “Employee A” — stole more than $33,000 by submitting fake reimbursements for items purportedly needed by the school.
The employee asked a co-owner of a CPS vendor for fake invoices to cover some of the missing paperwork, according to the report.
From 2009 to 2013, the owner of two district vendors gave the employee more than $111,000 in kickbacks in connection with more than $216,000 in purchases at two high schools, “either all or substantially” all of which were fraudulent, the IG’s office found.
Over roughly the same period, the employee filed fake purchase orders totaling more than $581,000 with two owners of multiple district vendors, the report said.
Investigations concluded that one business owner created four companies to provide office services and supplies to CPS, in an effort to avoid district purchasing limits “that interfered with his desire to fulfill large contracts with CPS schools.”
Since the alleged theft, CPS officials said, the district implemented new, unspecified controls on employee reimbursements and internal accounts.