Investigation widens into missing HOB money

The Monroe County School Board unanimously agreed Tuesday to hire a Miami-based forensic investigator to look into how more than $20,000 went missing from Key West’s Horace O’Bryant School.

Richard Fechter was one of two forensic investigators hired by the School District in 2009 to investigate then-Superintendent Randy Acevedo and his wife, Monique Acevedo. Monique Acevedo was head of adult education for the district and is now serving the tail-end of an eight-year in prison for stealing close to a half a million dollars from the district. 

Her now-ex-husband received three years probation for covering up the theft.

The scandal haunted the District for years. There was a feeling after the 2010 Acevedo convictions that more people were involved and should have been brought to justice. And now some on the School Board fear a similar scandal may be brewing.

The board spent two hours discussing the issue during Tuesday’s board meeting at Marathon High School.

School Board Vice Chairman John Dick demanded that Superintendent Mark Porter bring discipline recommendations to the board to everyone and anyone involved.

Porter admitted before the discussion that he “erred significantly” in not reporting the missing money — from HOB’s daycare program — to the board, even though he knew about it since November 2014.

“If those discipline recommendations are not what they should be, then I would call for the removal of the superintendant,” Dick said. “It’s almost as if it’s $20,000, who cares?”

Board member Ed Davidson said he has spent more than 100 hours looking over the HOB day-care situation, questioning whether the school’s other internal accounts were handled the same way.

“If everybody thinks I really enjoy this s--t, they’re wrong,” Davidson said. “This should have never happened.”

Fechter, who was also a state senior assistant attorney general from 1990 to 1993, co-authored a report in the Acevedo scandal that had a damning account of breakdowns in the school system that led to unchecked, unauthorized spending.

He said Tuesday that he decided to attend the board meeting because of separate phone conversations with School Board Chairman Andy Griffiths, Dick and Porter.

Tampa lawyer Latour "LT" Lafferty, who also looked at financials in the Acevedo scandal, was also in talks to come down, but did not attend.

“We got to find out exactly what was happening,” Fechter said Tuesday. “Was it theft?”

HOB Principal Mike Henriquez said he first alerted the district to the missing day-care money in November 2014.

The district's contracted accounting firm, King & Walker, issued a report in May finding that from July 2014 to March 2015, the School District had receipts for the HOB day-care program totaling $62,298. But actual deposits added up to only $41,559 – a difference of $20,739.

Fechter noted that the State Attorney’s Office, which is also investigating what happened at HOB, will have “difficulty proving a case.”

Chief Assistant State Attorney Manny Madruga said Wednesday that the investigation is “ongoing and not final yet.”

However, Porter said during Tuesday’s meeting that it could be complete in weeks. Despite the unanimous vote requesting that School Board Attorney Dirk Smits enter into an agreement with Fechter over the HOB issue, particulars of his contract, including cost, have not been determined.

However, Fechter did tell the board he should have something completed by the end of January.

“We’re still not any closer to getting to the bottom of this,” School Board member Bobby Highsmith said before the Fechter vote. “We owe it to the taxpayers to be transparent.”

Griffiths also made a motion to add a letter of reprimand to Porter’s file, but that failed for a lack of a second motion.

“He came up short and this is an appropriate response to that,” Griffiths said.

Davidson said a reprimand was premature, while Dick said it would be “fast and foolish.” There was also some talk as to having any future evaluation or audit come before the School Board first.

Fechter’s contract, which is being discussed according to Griffiths, would still need board approval.

Outside of the State Attorney’s Office and the board’s actions Tuesday, the state Auditor General’s Office is scheduled to release a final School District audit, which will include a section on the unaccounted for day-care money, after this month.

Board member Ron Martin was more frustrated over the time spent on the issue, rather than topics such as curriculum and standardized testing.

“Here we are again spending another hour, two hours trying to figure out where some damn money went,” Martin said.