Star witness in Acevedo theft case heads back to court

Six years after she says she made then-schools Superintendent Randy Acevedo aware of financial irregularities in the Monroe County School District, a former employee is heading back to court to get her job back.

Former Finance Director Katherine Reitzel and former Credit Card Administrator Linda Walker have both sued the district. They claim they were forced to resign or face firing in 2009 when the Acevedo theft scandal -- Acevedo's wife Monique spent more than $400,000 in district money on personal goods and services -- was unfolding.

Walker was a 35-year employee only 10 months from retirement, while Reitzel had worked there since 2002. Reitzel had been earning $95,910 with a $2,300 supplement annually; Walker was making $39,717 a year.

On Nov. 25, Michael Burke, an outside attorney for the School Board, will ask Circuit Court Judge Tegan Slaton to toss Reitzel's lawsuit. A similar effort to get Walker's lawsuit, now combined with Reitzel's, has been rejected.

The pair claims protection under the Florida Whistleblower Act.

In November 2007, Walker alerted Reitzel to irregularities with the district's credit card program, specifically, the spending of Monique, then a district administrator. Reitzel took that concern to Randy Acevedo, who did nothing.

Then in 2009, Reitzel refused to sign a letter to state auditors saying the financial information the district was providing the auditors for the 2008-09 school year was complete and not fraudulent. Randy Acevedo signed the letter.

That year, then-Gov. Charlie Crist removed him from office, and at trial he was convicted of three counts of official misconduct. He got probation.

While the finance scandal was unraveling in September 2009, Acevedo's appointed successor, Joseph Burke, gave Reitzel and Walker the choice of being fired or retiring. They chose the latter and in February 2010, they sued the School District.

Burke said the Nov. 25 hearing applies to Reitzel's lawsuit although for trial purposes the two complaints have been combined.

Burke's position is that "Ms. Reitzel was given the option of resigning or potentially facing a disciplinary action" and chose to retire, voiding protection under the Whistleblower Act.

In his Sept. 27 motion, Burke wrote that Reitzel "did not file a signed, written complaint on her own initiative ... [and] did not suffer an adverse employment action."

Reitzel was the star witness in the state's case against Randy Acevedo, who was convicted of covering up the theft and fraud committed by his wife. Monique was convicted of six felonies and is serving eight years in state prison. She's slated for release in 2017.

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. The theft went on unchecked in the interim.Reitzel attorney Michael Barnes didn't return a call for comment.

But her lawsuit says "Reitzel's actions are entitled to protection under the Florida Whistle-Blower's Act. Reitzel's disclosure to agency administrators constituted a whistle blowing. Reitzel's unlawful termination occurred within a week. The [School District] terminated Reitzel from employment ... in retaliation of her disclosures as a whistle-blower."

The witness list for a potential trial includes both Acevedos; former Superintendent Burke; past School Board members Steve Pribramsky, Duncan Mathewson and Debra Walker; a laundry list of former and current district staffers; former State Attorney Dennis Ward; and Assistant State Attorney Mark Wilson, who successfully prosecuted the Acevedos.

Reitzel and Walker want their jobs and seniority restored with back pay, and damages greater than $15,000.