State, federal prosecutors part of Bibb school audit huddle

obrown@macon.comFebruary 28, 2014 

Bibb County school officials are scheduled to meet with state and federal prosecutors Monday to discuss the results of a recent school audit and whether a criminal investigation is warranted.

District Attorney David Cooke said Friday that he was aware of the audit and would talk with “the appropriate officials” to see whether a criminal probe is justified.

“We don’t know if any laws were violated or if this is a violation of policies and procedures,” he said.

U.S. Attorney Michael Moore also will be on hand to discuss the audit findings Monday. Federal authorities already have an open investigation of the way millions of dollars in school system commitments to the Macon Promise Neighborhood were handled.

An audit of the school district released to school board members Thursday showed that former Superintendent Romain Dallemand repeatedly violated school board policies by ordering more than $26 million in technology equipment and services without the required, prior approval of the school board.

Purchases were made from education sales tax proceeds. Board members subsequently approved some of the purchase orders, sometimes months later. They never approved some of the orders.

The audit said Dallemand “authorized, directed and coerced staff to make transactions that were in violation” of board policies. The report listed the cause of the violations as an “apparent reckless disregard by the former superintendent for existing school district procurement policies established by the Board of Education.”

The Telegraph’s attempts to reach Dallemand on Thursday and Friday were not successful. The Telegraph left messages with Dallemand at his Florida home and through social media, and a reporter sent him and his wife emails seeking comment.

Interim school Superintendent Steve Smith said Friday that he and other board members plan to meet with prosecutors Monday. Smith said he also intended to notify the state’s educator watchdog agency, the Professional Standards Commission, about the audit. The commission has the authority to revoke an educator’s certification.

“We’ll give (Cooke) a copy of the audit and ask if it warrants an investigation or not,” Smith said. “He would only get involved in it if some criminal act was committed. I don’t know whether there was or not.

“I think (Cooke) is the logical place to start,” Smith said. “The money (involved) was SPLOST money. That’s local money that taxpayers have paid. ... We have an obligation to the taxpayers to turn this over to the proper authorities and let them determine whether there’s any wrongdoing or not.

“It all boils down to, did the former superintendent exceed his authority in the nine purchases he authorized on behalf of the Board of Education? Those purchases should have had the approval of the board before they were made.”

‘Abuse of power’

Smith said the audit showed that “what happened was the result of an abuse of power. There’s no question it was unethical.”

As for notifying the PSC, Smith said he has “a professional and ethical obligation to report findings such as these. ... If I failed to do that, I could lose my certification.”

He also lamented taxpayers’ possible loss of confidence should sales tax initiatives be put to a vote in the years ahead.

“We’ve got one heck of a rebuilding project if there’s any hope of getting another SPLOST passed here,” Smith said. “It’s unfortunate that the actions of a very few people could jeopardize the quality of education for nearly 25,000 students in Bibb County.”

When school officials and prosecutors gather, another topic will likely come up besides details of the audit: the severance agreement that Dallemand and school officials signed to buy out Dallemand’s contract.

It included language that the district would “indemnify” Dallemand and “hold him harmless from any acts or decisions made by him in good faith while performing services for the Board and District.” The agreement also said the school district would pay his legal expenses “in connection with the defense and/or prosecution of any and all such acts, suits or proceedings, whether civil or criminal.”

From July to December 2012, Dallemand authorized nine contracts or purchase orders, at least three of which did not involve competitive bidding and most of which did not receive prior board approval, according to the audit by Mauldin & Jenkins. Two of the orders were for more than $6 million, and two others were for more than $3 million. Dallemand was not authorized to make financial commitments for the system above $500,000. (That cap has since been lowered to $100,000.)One of the orders, for nearly $3.8 million in December 2012, involved the purchase of 15,000 virtual desktop devices, the audit said. Fewer than 200 of the devices are now being used in just three schools. The rest are still sitting unused in a Bibb County warehouse while the system tries to sell them back for perhaps 50 cents on the dollar.

The audit said the transactions represented a total of more than $51 million in violation of school district polices. Not all of the $51 million involved actual purchases, though.

The commitments also included “matching resources” that were part of a Macon Promise Neighborhood grant application, for example.

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