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Federal Grand Jury Investigates Detroit School Board

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Federal authorities are investigating possible financial improprieties by members of the Detroit school board and district employees, a school board member said last week.

The board has also been under scrutiny from the local news media and faces a lawsuit from an employee who claims that its members misused school funds.

A federal grand jury has subpoenaed board documents in recent months relating to such matters as food-service contracts, said the board member, Ben Washburn.

Federal investigators have also requested purchase receipts for school property used by board members and expense reimbursements for last school year, The Detroit News reported last month.

The newspaper also reported that school officials had hired a private detective to check the district's phones for wiretaps after some internal documents were leaked to the press.

Mr. Washburn confirmed that the district had hired a company to check for wiretaps because of leaks, but said they were unrelated to the federal investigation.

Mr. Washburn said the inquiry into contracting practices began about 18 months ago.

Sandy Palazzolo, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Detroit, said officials there could not comment on any recent grand jury proceedings, which are secret.

Steve Wasko, a spokesman for the district , also declined to comment on the federal inquiry or to provide details about the district's check for wiretaps.

The school board probe is not the first event to draw attention to the inner workings of the 172,000-student district.

Two years ago, a local television station reported that thousands of dollars worth of property had been stolen from the district's warehouse since 1990. The station alleged that most of the thefts appeared to be "inside jobs" involving district employees. (See Education Week, March 30, 1994.)

No top officials were implicated in those reports, but the stories prompted Superintendent David L. Snead to impose tighter controls on district operations.

Whistle-Blower

According to The News, federal officials last month requested a district report that looked into allegations that school money had been used to pay for repairs at the home of April Howard Coleman, a board member who has also served as its president.

Emanuel Ford, the district's former construction manager, said he had been ordered by another school official to work on Ms. Coleman's home on district time and was paid out of district funds. He also alleged he was forced to sell tickets to school vendors for a fund-raising event for Ms. Coleman's 1994 re-election campaign.

Mr. Ford, who filed a lawsuit against the district in 1994 under the state's "whistle-blower" law, said he was harassed and transferred to a lower post after he took his allegations to federal authorities, his lawyer, Steven Z. Cohen, said last week.

Board President Irma Clark and Ms. Coleman did not return repeated calls to their offices last week. Charles Wells, the executive director of the district's office of labor affairs and its troubleshooter on legal issues, also did not respond to calls.

On top of Mr. Ford's complaints, media reports in the past year have questioned the board's spending on travel and car repairs, among other expenditures. The attention apparently resulted in the adoption of tighter spending rules last spring.

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