public watchdog Larry Murray investigates Florida Keys School District fraud hotline, for fraud

 

fraud investigation

From Larry Murray yesterday:

Prompted by Sean Kinney’s article in today’s Keynoter, Bill Becker has invited me to join him tomorrow (Thursday) as the closing act at 8:55 on Morning Magazine. He wants to discuss my findings subsequent to my PRR for Hotline reports. Stay tuned!

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Each day’s Morning Magazine is available by noon for replay online – www.us1radio.com

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Schools official focus of hotline complaints

By SEAN KINNEY

skinney@keynoter.com

Posted – Wednesday, January 23, 2013 09:57 AM EST

After months of pushing, a Big Pine Key man got a glimpse of public records he’s been seeking from the Monroe County School District since October — and if what they say is true, they’re not pretty.

Larry Murray, a former member of the district’s Audit and Finance Committee, had been unsuccessful in getting records related to the district’s fraud and abuse hotline until he brought in Dennis Ward, former Keys state attorney now private counsel, to threaten a lawsuit for lack of compliance.

Monday, the two met with School District attorney Dirk Smits and received five reports from the hotline, which is managed by Oregon-based vendor Ethics Point at a cost of $5,000 per year.

Three of them allege district Finance Director Ken Gentile acted inappropriately on the job.

From Case No. 41, logged by the hotline on May 17, 2012, by an anonymous tipster: “Ken Gentile has created a very hostile work environment for staff. We are asked to get on our knees to pray with him. No one can refuse the forced religion for fear of retribution from this zealot … who now [has] the power to investigate and fire staff at will. This is so inappropriate it’s hard to believe it’s true.”

“This is totally baseless and unfounded,” Gentile told the Keynoter Tuesday. “I cannot even speculate as to why someone would allege this. It saddens me to think that someone would allege this. It saddens me to think that someone would allege I would force anyone to pray.”

That complainant further alleges Gentile’s wife Donna calls herself a “volunteer” and “runs around” the district office in Key West “looki[ng] through files.” Gentile didn’t address that.

When he started with the district in April 2010, Gentile was chief internal auditor, a direct employee of the School Board. After then-Superintendent Joe Burke resigned, his successor, Jesus Jara, named Gentile chief of staff directly employed by the superintendent, not the board. Now under Superintendent Mark Porter, Gentile is finance director earning $122,000 per year.

Gentile launched the hotline in September 2011. As the district’s contact, he reviewed tips — except for those concerning him, which were supposed to be forwarded to the superintendent and the chairman of the School Board.

That never happened and inexplicably, reports concerning Gentile were forwarded to his part-time assistant, Amy Reno, who worked for him from March 28 until July 1 in 2011.

Gentile couldn’t explain why Reno, who wasn’t responsible for investigating waste, fraud and abuse complaints regarding her boss, received the reports; and Reno never initiated any follow-up investigations into Gentile’s alleged behavior.

“The reports should have been channeled to the board chairman,” Gentile said. “This was an instruction given to the vendor. I am investigating with the vendor why this was not accomplished. By design, I do not see these reports if they are about me.”

Case No. 54, filed Dec. 13, 2012, alleges Gentile “created a contract and split it up into smaller amounts to avoid taking it to the board.”

The board has to approve contracts costing more than $25,000 while Porter can give the OK below that threshold. That’s been a sore spot lately, as board members have been apprised by Smits they’ll have to redo a number of change orders on a school rebuild that were previously approved but not in compliance with district rules.

Case No. 48, initiated with the hotline on Sept. 27, 2012, calls into question Gentile’s use of the “certified public accountant” designation on documents. Gentile has never been a CPA in Florida and had an inactive — since reinstated — CPA status in New York. In December, Gentile served a one-week unpaid suspension as discipline.

The only non-Gentile complaint of the five provided to Murray deals with Horace O’Bryant Middle School Principal Mike Henriquez.

Opened on Dec. 20, 2011, the complainant alleges Henriquez “is allowed to scream, berate and use profanity toward subordinates and coworkers. He has repeated these outbursts many times. I know of at least half a dozen women who have been abused by this man.”

There was no follow-up conducted by the district, according to the report, and Henriquez didn’t return messages for comment.

Gentile’s wife Donna filed the fifth report given to Murray and Ward. She applied for a grant-writing job with the district in May 2012, which she didn’t receive, prompting a complaint about not being treated fairly in the hiring process.

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There also is an article on the Hotline in The Key West Citizen this morning – www.keysnews.com. You will have to pay with plastic money to open and read today’s issue.

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On the Hotline, this from Larry Murray yesterday:

Date: Wed, 23 Jan 2013 10:34:11 -0800 From: citizenlarry007@yahoo.com Subject: Who Is Amy Reno and Why Do We Care? To: keysmyhome@hotmail.com

We all remember the ballyhoo surrounding the School District’s decision to create a Waste, Fraud and Abuse Hotline. The Monique Acevedo affair was fresh in memory and the Hotline was intended to be a major impediment to anyone trying to again defraud the District.

The decision to proceed with a Hotline was announced in August, 2010 by the School Board’s new independent Internal Auditor, Ken Gentile. Gentile and then Audit and Finance Committee Chairman Roger McVeigh waxed enthusiastically about the impending Hotline, characterizing it as a “whistle-blower” program. At a cost of less than $10,000 per year, McVeigh observed, “(If) one out of 10 calls turns out to be real fraud,… it’s well worth the money.”

For whatever reason, it took nearly a year to bring the Hotline system on line. The Audit and Finance Committee was anxious to see the Hotline up and running quickly, chiding Gentile to move things along. Gentile assured the AFC that all was well, to be patient. As it turns out, we, I was on the AFC at the time, should have been more suspicious at the delay. Facts recently uncovered reveal that the administration of the Hotline has been rife with problems, if not corruption.

Let’s take a case in point. Ken Gentile was the Hotline administrator throughout, the sole person within the District with unfettered access to the Hotline. No one else could gain entrance. But, what would happen if Ken Gentile’s name came up in a Hotline complaint?

This subject was never discussed by the AFC though it had nominal oversight for the Hotline. Burdened by wrestling with no end of financial and other problems confronting the District, the AFC was lax in its oversight. Gentile issued one report about Hotline activity in September, 2011 and that was it. The AFC never requested additional reports and Gentile was free to manage the Hotline in any way he wished.

That all came to a crashing end beginning on October, 17, 2012, the day that I made a Public Records Request for all records generated by and associated with the Hotline. The first and continuing response of the District was to ignore my request, to stiff arm me to see if I would go away. That was a strategy that had worked with other individuals’ PRR’s so why not try it again.

For three months, I sparred with the District. A lot occurred during that struggle which I will share with you later. There is one aspect however, that calls for sharing now.

At the December, 2012 meeting of the AFC, Ken Gentile tried to placate me and the Committee with a cursory and cryptic 5 line Hotline “report” that was entirely unsatisfactory. During the meeting, however, Gentile offered an interesting revelation. He told the group that any calls to the Hotline that cited him, “Gentile”, bypassed him and went directly to the Superintendent and the Chairman of the School Board. This revelation was in response to my direct request for any and all records of Hotline cases in which he or his wife was mentioned.

Well, it turns out, after examining the previously unreported cases, that declaration was a bald faced lie. As the sole administrator, Gentile was responsible for determining who, besides him, would have access to the Hotline system, especially should his name arise in any complaints. And, to whom did he assign that responsibility? Amy Reno.

Who was Amy Reno? Amy Reno was a very nice accounting student from FKCC who Gentile hired, part-time, ostensibly to assist him in his role as Internal Auditor. For all intents and purposes, she was a paid intern. Ms. Reno worked for three months in the spring of 2011 and was gone before the Hotline was even operational. Yet, she remains on the list as one of the three people (Dirk Smits was added on 1/21/13) who has continuing access to the internals of the Hotline.

Think about what Gentile did. He created a system whereby any Hotline reports about him would be funneled to a subordinate and a part-time one at that. When Ms. Reno left the School District, she was not replaced in the Hotline system. Because of that “oversight”, all complaints, 6 of them, dating to December, 2011, a year ago, about Gentile and other top administrators, e.g. former Superintendent Jesus Jara, went into a “black hole” until Dirk Smits rescued them in response to my demand.

How did we discover that there were missing Hotline reports? It was very easy. Every time a case is logged with Ethics Point, it is automatically given a number in a consecutive log. When I received a copy of the log, it was immediately obvious that at least 6 complaints lodged with Ethics Point were missing.

That fact had been known by Gentile all along. Whenever he checked the Hotline system, he could easily see that case numbers were missing. What did he do when he discovered missing cases? Nothing, much as he did nothing with regard to the other cases brought to his attention by the Hotline.

You have got to admit that what Gentile did was slick. How better to CYA than to have someone wholly dependent on you for their job to examine complaints against you! Then, when she left, before the Hotline even went operational, you leave a phantom employee on the list of those with access. Who would ever know?

With his ruse exposed, Gentile told Sean Kinney of the Keynoter that he could not explain why Ms. Reno was charged with investigating complaints about her boss. Gentile claims that he told Ethics Point something entirely different and plans to “investigate”. Yet, Gentile “told” Ethics Point nothing. Every communication was electronic with Gentile himself typing the pertinent data. The buck is flying fast and furious. I cannot wait to hear what Gentile has to say.

Will Gentile investigate why he made no inquiries for over a year with his superiors or Ethics Point when he discovered missing cases? After all, there may have been reasons other than his name occurring that caused a case to be missing or, as Dirk Smits likes to characterize them, “orphans”. No, Gentile just went on with business as usual, expecting that no one would be the wiser.

Had I not made my PRR, Gentile’s behavior would have remained a deep, dark secret. The School District, specifically Superintendent Mark Porter, stymied my demand for the documents at every turn for over three months. I would like to think that my persistence led to the exposure of Gentile’s nefarious activity. No, that was not the case. It was only when I turned to Dennis Ward for help that the School District finally caved and began to comply with the law.

To date, I have received for only 5 cases the detailed documents from the Hotline that I requested. More are to come. But, each case exposes another layer of School District shenanigans. More to come.

Larry Murray

January 23, 2013

Dr. Larry Murray

Fiscal Watchdog and Citizen Advocate

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I told Larry the other day that there is something terribly awry when the person responsible for the Hotline is responsible for handling complaints against the person responsible for the Hotline. I think the School Board should be in the Hotline loop, and I think at each School Board meeting the Superintendent should read to the Board, in the sunshine, any Hotline complaints received since the last Board meeting, and the Superintendent should bring the Board up to date at each Board meeting on the status of the investigation into each Hotline complaint.

Larry told me a good while back that when he first corresponded with Superintendent Porter about getting information on the Fraud Hotline, Porter replied that he had never heard of the Hotline. How could the School Board vet and hire Porter, without telling him about the Fraud Hotline?

The School Board created the Audit & Finance Committee, on which Larry was one of the initial appointed members, to help the School Board bring the School District under financial and related control. Larry learned the Board had no intention of heeding anything that came out of the AFC. Larry learned the Board created the AFC as a public relations ploy, to give the public the impression that the Board was going to rein in the School District. Larry learned the AFC was a fraud. He might not say it that way, but that’s what he learned.

It looks to me that the Fraud Hotline also was created as a public relations ploy, to give the public the fraudulent impression that its input was important. Perhaps that will change. Perhaps not. It’s up to the School Board to change it, since they now have a Superintendent they can fire on 60 days notice without giving any reason.

Meanwhile, while the Fraud Hotline is in the limelight, it might be a good place for people with information on what happened at Key West High School, which led up to Matthew Gilleran’s suicide, to report what they know without fear of retaliation.

To make a Hotline complaint, click on the School District website link – www.KeysSchools.com – and then scroll down the left-hand menu to Hotline and click on that. I pulled this from that webpage for general information:

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To Make a Report

You may use either of the following two methods to submit a report:

Select the “Make a Report” link at the top of this web page.

OR

Dial toll-free: 866-842-2093

 

After you complete your report you will be assigned a unique code called a “report key.” Write down your report key and password and keep them in a safe place. After 5-6 business days, use your report key and password to check your report for feedback or questions.

EthicsPoint is NOT a 911 or Emergency Service:

Do not use this site to report events presenting an immediate threat to life or property. Reports submitted through this service may not receive an immediate response. If you require emergency assistance, please contact your local authorities.

The School Board of Monroe County, Florida is dedicated to providing our faculty and staff with a safe and productive workplace. Our Code of Conduct is simple and straight forward.

Play nice

Take responsibility

Be a faithful agent to students, their families and the community

Take it personally

Uphold the code

The Superintendent of Schools and his administrative team value your input. That is why we have selected EthicsPoint to provide us with an anonymous and confidential method to hear your suggestions, concerns or report of misconduct. The information you provide will be sent to us by EthicsPoint on a totally confidential and anonymous basis. You have our guarantee that your comments will be heard.

Our Commitment

Our goal is to assure and enhance the integrity, people, processes, and assets needed by all stakeholders of the School Board of Monroe County, Florida. We believe that the viability and integrity of the School Board of Monroe County, Florida depends on the protection of our critical assets, including our people, physical assets, and our information. We also believe that our communication, internal controls, and processes must constantly adapt to the changing needs and objectives of the company as well as to the changing marketplace. We appreciate your support and cooperation in keeping the School Board of Monroe County, Florida an ethical organization from top to bottom.

Attention!

This web page is hosted on EthicsPoint’s secure servers and is not part of the School Board of Monroe County website or intranet.

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Looks good on paper …

Sloan Bashinsky

keysmyhome@hotmail.com

About Sloan

That's what this website is about, also goodmorningkeywest.com and goodmorningbirmingham.com. If you can't get a publisher to take on your wacky musing, you do it yourself.
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