A three-judge state appellate court panel this week overturned a Monroe County judge’s 2015 dismissal of a former Monroe County School District senior staffer’s “whistleblower” lawsuit and sent it back to the Keys for trial.
The Third District Court of Appeal ruled that Circuit Judge Mark H. Jones erred when he dismissed former district finance chief Katherine Reitzel’s wrongful-termination lawsuit without a jury trial. Reitzel argued in her 2010 lawsuit against the district that then-interim Superintendent Joseph Burke gave her an ultimatum in September 2009: Resign or be fired.
Reitzel chose to retire, but in the lawsuit, she said her decision was made under duress and thus involuntarily. Reitzel sought her job back with seniority and back pay. She earned $95,910 annually.
Jones ruled in September 2015 that while having to choose between the two options was stressful, Reitzel’s decision to retire was voluntary.
“The court finds that the plaintiff had a clear understanding of the situation facing her and she made a knowing and voluntary decision to retire,” Jones wrote on Sept 4, 2015. “Without a doubt, the plaintiff found herself in a difficult situation where she was faced with disagreeable choices. However, the mere fact that the plaintiff had to make a choice between comparably unpleasant alternatives does not alone establish that her retirement was involuntary.”
But the appellate judges wrote in their Jan. 11 ruling that issues remain surrounding the circumstances of Reitzel leaving the district and those issues should have been addressed during a jury trial.
“Here, genuine material issues of fact remain as to whether Reitzel voluntarily decided to retire and whether the School Board had good cause for Reitzel’s termination,” the three judge’s wrote.
Superintendent Mark Porter said Thursday that he, his staff and the five-member School Board have not had a chance to consult with the district’s legal counsel regarding what comes next, but given the history of the case, a trial appears likely.
“At this point, it appears likely this matter may proceed to trial based on a previous unsuccessful mediation efforts,” Porter said.
Reitzel’s attorney, Brett Powell, said Thursday that he plans to resume the lawsuit, and the case does not have to be refiled in Monroe County Circuit Court.
“We pick up where we left off at the point in which the trial judge erroneously granted summary judgment, where we will proceed to a trial to vindicate Ms. Reitzel’s rights.” Powell wrote in an email.
This week’s decision is a stark reminder of a financial scandal that reverberated throughout the county and school system last decade, and in many ways, Reitzel is at its center.
In 2009, because of Reitzel, it became clear that Monique Acevedo, who was then head of the district’s adult education department, was ripping off taxpayers by using her work-issued credit card for personal purchases and by stealing tuition cash from the adult education department. But questions remain whether perfect or imperfect reasons were behind Reitzel’s decision to expose the crime to authorities.
Acevedo pleaded guilty in 2010 to four felony theft counts and two felony organized fraud counts. Forensic and criminal investigators found that Acevedo took the district for almost a half a million dollars. In June, she is scheduled to be released from state prison following an eight-year stint.
Her then-husband, Randy Acevedo, was superintendent during the years his now-ex-wife fleeced the district’s coffers. He said he didn’t know about the theft, but prosecutors thought otherwise and arrested him. A jury found him guilty in 2009 on three official obstruction counts. Jones sentenced him to three years of probation and fined him $15,000.
Acevedo is again collecting a government paycheck as an IT staffer for the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority. He and Monique divorced in 2014, and Randy is now married to the principal of Key West High School.
Earlier in 2009, before the extent of the Acevedos’ crimes became known, Reitzel, refused to sign a letter certifying that information the School District was about to provide to state auditors for the 2008-09 academic year was accurate and not fraudulent. That was the first year such a letter was required by state law. Acevedo ended up signing the document.
Reitzel then brought concerns about the fraudulent use of district credit cards to the state Auditor General’s Office and to School Board member Andy Griffiths on March 2, 2009. This kicked off the investigation that led to the Acevedos’ arrests and convictions. But School Board members at the time faulted Reitzel for having policies in place, or lack thereof, that helped create an environment favorable to graft, and for not saying something sooner.
School Board members argued that she was aware Monique Acevedo was misusing her work credit card for at least more than a year and did nothing. Testimony in Randy Acevedo’s trial indicated that Reitzel first brought him evidence of his wife’s improper spending in October 2007, but not again until February 2009.
As a result of the scandal, the Monroe County School Board now hires the district superintendent. Another policy change in the wake of the grand theft is the district suspended all use of work-issued credit cards
The entire scandal rocked district finances for years. As the scandal unfolded, the district suspended all use of district credit cards. In 2015, the School Board allowed a limited number of people to use them.