7 Dallas Employees Suspended in Suspected Fraud

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Seven Dallas school district employees have been suspended in an investigation that began with suspected overtime fraud but has widened to include purchasing and contracting practices.

Of the employees who have been placed on leave with pay, four are high-level administrators. Five work in the maintenance department.

In announcing the suspensions last month, Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez said her intention was to expedite the investigation, which she launched this spring.

Some of the suspended administrators are suspected of threatening subordinates who wanted to report corruption to the investigators, said Marcos Ronquillo, the lawyer who is coordinating the investigation for the 155,000-student district. He emphasized that none of the suspended workers has been found guilty of wrongdoing.

One has resigned, however. Michael Henderson, the assistant superintendent for facilities support and the highest ranking of the employees who have been suspended, resigned May 15, the day after he was suspended.

Mr. Henderson could not be reached for comment last week. In an interview with the The Dallas Morning News, he denied any wrongdoing and said he had been considering the move since Ms. Gonzalez was hired as the permanent superintendent in January.

Ms. Gonzalez set in motion the internal investigation of possible overtime fraud and other spending abuses as part of a general housecleaning. Auditors reviewed timecards and eventually found more than $2 million in overtime abuse. ("FBI Joins Probe of Alleged Employee Fraud In Dallas," April 23, 1997.)

Ongoing Probes

Other problems have also come to light, Mr. Ronquillo said, partly from the auditors' continuing investigation and partly from calls to a corruption hot line set up in April.

The line has received nearly 300 calls about possible wrongdoing, including allegations of contract fixing, payment of hush money, nondelivery of services, and widespread favoritism, officials said.

The FBI is also investigating overtime fraud in the school system, and has asked for the work records of about 300 employees. District officials are complying.

Mr. Ronquillo said last week that more suspensions were "a distinct possibility." The internal investigation could lead to firings, lawsuits, recommendations for criminal prosecution, or changes in policy or procedure, he added.

The Dallas school board issued a resolution last week in support of the investigation, which has reportedly created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust in some quarters of the central office.

Ms. Gonzalez said through a spokesman, Jon Dahlander, that the probe would continue. "We are going to pursue this investigation and leave no stone unturned," Mr. Dahlander quoted her as saying.

In one instance reportedly uncovered by investigators, a payroll clerk in the maintenance department is alleged to have padded a co-worker's timecard in exchange for a cut of his overtime pay.

When the clerk was suspended, the Morning News reported, she denied the charge and accused her boss of making up the allegations to protect himself. She said he had used district equipment and labor to start up a lawn-care business.

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