Hands in the Till
|Much more than just cash was lost in a school district embezzlement scheme.|
On the best day of his life, Coach Tom Lewis bowed his head as a little gold medallion was hung around his neck, an award for winning the South Carolina high school football championship. Lewis turned around that late-autumn day in 1987 and knew precisely whom to thank for helping the Sumter High School Gamecocks reach new heights: Joe Klein, the man who controlled the school's budget."I took it off my neck, and I put it around his," Lewis remembers. "I felt he was responsible for where we were."
Turns out, Joe Klein would also share the blame for Lewis' ruin as a football coach and educator 12 years later. The man Lewis credited as a mentor and friend was also the mastermind behind one of the largest school embezzlement schemes ever prosecuted.
The case concluded this month, when the last defendant pleaded guilty. In all, 15 people were convicted. Besides Klein and Lewis, they included four other local educators, the district's auditor, a local travel agent, and a New Jersey car dealer.
Klein admitted in 1999 that he had stolen no less than $3.5 million from Sumter School District 17, and prosecutors say he likely stole much more. How much he took, and how much he spent, no one really knows. The case reached into the schools and classrooms of the 9,000-student South Carolina district when charges were filed against Lewis, three assistant coaches, and an assistant principal, all of whom later pleaded guilty. The district's nationally recognized chorus teacher was suspended and later resigned.
Sumter won't be forgetting the ordeal any time soon, people here say. Residents of the slow-paced, prideful town with a U.S. Air Force base guarding its border watched the scandal erupt in the newspapers and on television. They realized that millions of taxpayers' dollars had been diverted from classrooms and teachers, and they watched educators who had grown up around here go to jail.
This city of 40,000, an hour's drive across swampland and pasture from the capital city of Columbia, has been left with a broken heart.
As the assistant superintendent for fiscal affairs since 1977, Joe Klein was in charge of the Sumter district's money. Prosecutors' evidence showed that since 1984, Klein had spent money any way he saw fit. He would advance an employee a few hundred dollars, send someone flowers, or offer them tickets to a show.
He supported some of the programs at Sumter High School as if they were his own, prosecutors charged, drawing allegiance from teachers and coaches that ended up costing those people their jobs. The school's chorus traveled the world, taking Sumter's song to places it might never have been heard.
Tom Lewis, who boasts he never cut a kid from his football team, had most of the equipment his team needed and a staff of top-quality assistant coaches. Klein's investments and confidence helped Lewis build Sumter High's program into one of the best in a state packed with great football programs. On fall Friday nights, 5,000 fans have been known to attend Sumter games. This state loves its football—and Sumter loved what Lewis had done.
The spending, gradually, went from frivolous to criminal.
But the coach also was drawn into Klein's own personal Mardi Gras, perhaps more closely than anyone else. The spending, gradually, went from frivolous to criminal. Klein took Lewis and others to New Orleans, where he gave them cash to spend and hired call girls, prosecutors said. Klein even fell in love with one of the call girls, according to court testimony.
In the end, Klein pleaded guilty to embezzlement—avoiding a possible sentence of up to 105 years in prison by agreeing to help prosecutors nail his co-conspirators. He's serving 10 years in prison, and must pay nearly $1.2 million in restitution.
Klein is restricted from talking to the press, and his lawyer did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Lewis was forced to leave coaching and his hometown behind. After pleading guilty, he served 45 days in the county jail, then accepted a friend's offer to manage a Shoney's restaurant in Fernandina Beach, Fla., near Jacksonville. He lives there with his wife, Jane, and their teenage son.
To this day, Lewis insists he never intended to steal the public's money. Prosecutors say the evidence clearly proves otherwise.
The coach says his accusers, along with the thousands of former students, neighbors, and supporters in Sumter who now view him as a criminal, don't understand how a man can slide into something like this, and never will.
"I felt like I was in a trap I couldn't avoid," he says.
When Bill Cason inherited the job of superintendent in Sumter in the summer of 1999, he wasn't told of all he would face. A small-framed, serious man with the same South Georgia drawl as Jimmy Carter, he had headed the small-town Colleton County schools in Walterboro, 60 miles from Charleston, after years of working in Georgia schools.
In Sumter, he would preside over the district's darkest days.
"When I first came to town, I thought there was some leftover stuff, some minor stuff dealing with Joe Klein," he says.
|What new Superintendent Bill Cason found was a situation South Carolina's attorney general would later call one of the biggest cases of public corruption in state history.|
Instead, what he found was a situation South Carolina's attorney general would later call one of the biggest cases of public corruption in state history.
Cason received a mound of evidence from a deputy state attorney general, Jon Ozmint, and used the information as the basis for his own probe into district financial records. Within a month, he had evidence enough to suspend Coach Lewis, chorus teacher Sonja Sepulveda, and others.
With years of supervisory experience in school finance and the advice of state investigators, Cason dug through boxes and found documents to back up Klein's claims that the stolen money had ended up in others' hands.
The new superintendent then held several days of reckoning inside the modest, metal-roofed building where the Sumter district has its headquarters. Cason believed it was his duty to suspend five employees, including Lewis, two of his assistant coaches, and Sepulveda. The coaches later were charged and convicted, while Sepulveda was not.
"What was difficult was the personal side for me, watching the families of these people and watching the careers of some very good people go down the tubes," Cason says. "People who had contributed so much for kids—and these people had. They just did some terribly wrong things."
He rejects the idea that the district employees didn't know they were participating in questionable activities.
"Tom Lewis is a perfect example. You don't take 80-something gambling trips and think it's a reward," he says. "It just didn't happen."
Ozmint, who prosecuted the case, is convinced that Lewis pleaded guilty to avoid damning evidence that would have been introduced in court, including photographs of Lewis partying with call girls. Ozmint says he was prepared to prove that Lewis had received more than $75,000 in bogus district checks, and had taken more than 80 trips that cost a total of $120,000.
The evidence convinced Ozmint that Lewis knew what he was getting into, and knew it was illegal.
"Nowhere in any of those pictures do you see a lasso around Tom Lewis' neck," Ozmint says.
The coach and his lawyer, John Ford of Sumter, say Ozmint has twisted the truth. Some of the checks Lewis received were legitimate reimbursements, they say, and others were district-approved rewards for Lewis' extra hours and accomplishments. Other expense documents were altered by Klein without the coach's knowledge, Ford says.
When Lewis pleaded guilty to embezzlement last spring, his agreement named no dollar amount and no estimated number of trips. Ford says Lewis probably traveled about 40 times over the course of 10 years, but he contends that not until one of the last trips—a cruise with dozens of strangers—did Lewis realize the mess Klein had made.
In deciding whom to prosecute, Ozmint says he went after the people most clearly shown by evidence—including expense records, testimony, and photographs— to have repeatedly misused public money.
Coach Lewis and his lawyer question where the line was drawn. They say others who benefited from Klein's spending have kept their jobs and avoided prosecution. About 200 names, for example, appear on travel records showing they took airline trips with Klein, Ford says.
Superintendent Cason says he interviewed everyone believed to have been involved. People who volunteered information, and in some cases came to him before they were asked, were treated differently from those who stonewalled, he says.
Lewis claims that he was cooperative from the beginning, and says that he talked with state investigators. Cason counters that seeking information from Lewis and some of the others was like pulling hen's teeth.
"There had to be a line drawn somewhere as to who had been prosecuted," the superintendent says. "I made the only decision any fair-minded administrator could have made, and that was to see it through."
Otherwise, he says, "I would have been a coward."
The cracks in Joe Klein's scheme began to unravel in 1996, when Andrena E. Ray grew more and more terrified as she searched her files. Then the superintendent of the Sumter schools, she was baffled by documents that showed student trips she knew had never been taken.
‘I just can't tell you the sinking feeling. I was working with a criminal and did not know it.’
Prompted by questions from the district's new auditor, Robin Poston, Ray tried to match travel-expense documents with a list of student trips approved by the school board. She couldn't reconcile the two, and fear struck her heart. Already suspicious of Klein, she asked herself the most serious question of her career: What in the world was going on here?
"I just can't tell you the sinking feeling," says Ray, a fifth-generation Sumter native who had spent her entire career in the district. "I was working with a criminal and did not know it."
On the day before Halloween in 1997, Ray and state investigators confronted Klein. They believed about $280,000 was missing—but it proved to be just a drop in the bucket.
Adolph Joseph Klein Jr., a graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans, arrived in Sumter 24 years ago to oversee the district's finances. He came here from Greenville, the state's largest school district, where he had worked in finance and taught math.
Once a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Klein had built up broad support and trust during his years in Sumter. He and his wife, who acquaintances say are now divorced, raised two children.
Within the district, his authority was rarely questioned. Ray says that at times she felt he had more power than she did as superintendent.
"Mr. Klein did have a good reputation among the business officials in the state, and I made the very tragic mistake of trusting him entirely," she says. "Of course, he was deceiving me, just as he had my predecessor."
Klein's scheme might never have been discovered, except for the right people asking the right questions over several years.
He hid the bills for his many excursions by making them appear to be legitimate trips taken by students, prosecutors said. For example, paperwork would indicate that the student government had attended a meeting in Charleston, when in fact Klein had taken friends to Atlantic City. Everybody in Sumter was paying the bill.
Klein also created false businesses, prosecutors alleged, and billed the school district for phony work or equipment. The payments were then sent to Klein and his associates, evidence showed.
The auditor noticed too many invoices that looked the same. Superintendent Ray once visited the address for a Myrtle Beach construction-supply company, only to find no such business—only a post office where checks had been mailed.
The public issued its verdict long before the cases reached the courtroom, Ray says. Folks were baffled by criminal charges that seemed to come from nowhere, against some of the most reputable people in the school system. Some blamed Ray or others for not catching Klein sooner; others believed Lewis and his friends were wrongly accused.
"It's been the worst experience of my entire life," Ray says. "The terrible, destructive effects of all the talk, the gossip. People who didn't know all the facts were so quick to talk about it and so quick to condemn. People didn't know the whole story, and they couldn't know it, and we couldn't tell it."
Lewis, who calls himself a simple guy who had never flown on an airplane until Klein befriended him, arrived at the Sumter County courthouse last May, ready to stand trial and fight the charges against him. But that day, his father collapsed in the courtroom. Everything seemed to come crashing down.
Lewis hastily decided to plead guilty. "I had been through so much. I was so drained. I was so beat. I just wanted to get it over with and try to go on with my life, you know?" he says from his new home in Florida.
The judge sentenced him to 10 years in jail, and suspended all but 90 days. Lewis served half that time, volunteering for inmate work crews. A large portion—$1,100 a month—of his restaurant paycheck goes toward his more than $40,000 in restitution to the district. A civil suit filed by the district seeks even more. Lewis' last salary as a coach was $59,488, according to the district, and he says he earns a similar amount at Shoney's.
|Coach Lewis says his accusers don't understand how a man can slide into something like this, and never will.|
Lewis explains his part in the scandal by, first, saying he never meant to do anything wrong. He says he never intentionally would have swiped money meant for the students he so adored. He admits only to getting carried away with his role in Sumter, and the prestige brought by Klein's friendship.
Twice, Klein helped Lewis buy cars, once making the down payment on a truck when Lewis stopped teaching driver's education and no longer had access to a district vehicle. Another time, Klein bought the coach's daughter a used car.
Lewis remembers riding back with Klein from Georgia, where they had bought the used car. "It was like unbelievable. Looking back now, you can look at it differently, but at that point in my life, it was like the first time in my life somebody appreciated me," Lewis says.
The former coach denies taking part in many of the disreputable activities prosecutors allege were part of the trips with Klein: gambling, using illegal drugs, hiring prostitutes.
A churchgoing man, Lewis says he absolutely never used drugs while on the trips, and most definitely never broke his wedding vows. "I could not have ever admitted being a part of that," he says. "It's just something I did not do."
Women were around on the trips, he acknowledges. On the later jaunts, Klein would have strangers meet them at their destination, Lewis says—a fact that made him uncomfortable enough to go home early on occasion.
One time, Lewis says, he sat beside a woman on a jet flight, chatted and joked with her, then was stunned when she and another woman followed him and Klein into a taxicab at the Atlanta airport.
"He had brought them," Lewis said, "and I didn't even know it."
Trips away from home became troublesome. Lewis says he didn't want to be away from his wife and was growing more uneasy about Klein's acquaintances and activities.
"Going to Mardi Gras—it was dirty. It was not something I wanted to do," he says. "Jane and I used to try to sit down and think of ways to tell Joe I could not go. I felt obligated to the man. I think I was one of his closest friends. I was a guy he trusted. He didn't have a whole lot of close friends. I felt honored to be his friend, that he liked me. I could make him laugh."
Jane Lewis says tearfully that she sometimes encouraged her husband to go, despite her reservations. "I didn't want Tom going out of town. He would stand there and say, 'I don't know what to do,' " she laments. "There were times I felt sorry for Joe. ... Truly to goodness, I didn't object."
The same day that Lewis and his fellow coaches were suspended from their jobs, chorus teacher Sonja Sepulveda also was suspended from the staff of Sumter High.
The men ended up in jail; Sepulveda simply lost a position as a music teacher that meant everything to her.
What landed Sepulveda in trouble was traveling twice to Mexico with her family to visit her husband's relatives. She also flew to New York City to investigate a free-lance job that might have led to opportunities for her students, who performed solo at Carnegie Hall.
Klein gave permission and supplied the airline tickets for all three trips, prosecutors said. Sepulveda maintains that the tickets were provided instead of salary supplements for the extra hours she worked during choir practices and performances.
Sepulveda resigned after school board members declined to reverse her suspension, recommended by Superintendent Cason.
An outspoken, creative woman, Sepulveda was later accused of hanging around Sumter High to talk with students, and the superintendent warned in a letter that if she returned to campus, he'd call the cops.
That loss of trust—Sepulveda contends that she never inappropriately visited the campus—combined with her father's terminal cancer led to her decision to resign, she says.
She repaid the district $5,700 for her trips. She continues her work with a church choir and started a civic youth choir here, the latter a volunteer effort. Music has returned, to some extent, to her life. The strength of her reputation in Sumter, in the view of district leaders, has not.
Reluctant to discuss the case, Sepulveda fails to understand how district leaders and state prosecutors determined whom they would punish for receiving favors from Klein, and who would go unscathed.
"There are actually people teaching that received more [from Klein] than I did," Sepulveda says. The authorities "jumped too soon, and maybe they couldn't go back. Once people throw you out into the swamp politically, they can't pull you back in."
Sepulveda has her supporters, and some unsuccessfully pleaded with school board members during a public meeting in 1999 to reconsider the teacher's suspension.
Sylvia Kinder, a retired teacher who was a close colleague of Sepulveda's, says she believes her friend. "I will," she says, "until the day I die."
Bob Rearden Jr., a 19-year-old freshman studying music at the University of South Carolina, says his former teacher led a program comparable to those at many fine colleges and offered her students the experiences of a lifetime.
"It's important to look at someone's past records, and they didn't do that," Rearden says of administrators who decided to suspend Sepulveda.
Superintendent Cason says there's more to the story. "There were still several trips that she took that were illegal," he maintains. "'She was on the bubble as far as indictment. ... She was better at doing this than some other people."
Ozmint, the prosecutor, is more merciful in his assessment of Sepulveda. He says that her trips were clearly inappropriate, but that the loss of her job and her reimbursement were punishment enough.
Sepulveda hopes to teach music again, in Sumter or elsewhere.
"The superintendent, I'm sure he's a good man. But people sometimes come up with wrong assumptions," she says, sitting on her piano bench at home. "There should have been a way this could have been taken care of without destroying so many people."
The sour taste of distrust lingers between the school system and the community it serves, many people here say. Cason has been working to repair the relationship, staying visible and reassuring district employees. For the first time since Klein's departure, the Sumter schools have money in the bank—a $4.9 million reserve bolstering the district's $42.5 million budget.
People here wonder what could have been purchased with the millions Klein stole. Teachers aren't paid enough, Cason says, and classes should be smaller.
Former Superintendent Ray, looking back, wishes she could have stopped Klein's intricate scheme much sooner.
"I know I've taken a lot of criticism, but I can't make any apologies, because I did the best I could," she says. "That's all anybody can do. I do feel that if I had not become suspicious and asked for the auditors to investigate, it could still be going on."
Betty Kennedy, a retired teacher and administrator, speaks for many when she describes her feelings about the scandal: She takes personal offense at the embezzlement and its aftermath.
Betty Kennedy, a retired teacher and administrator who served for the past six years on the school board, speaks for many when she describes her feelings about the scandal. A longtime neighbor of Klein's parents, she hurts for them.
But as a board member—and a person who taught Lewis and others as children— she takes personal offense at the embezzlement and its aftermath.
"I worked 30 years in that high school," she says, her voice dropping to an angry whisper. "I gave as many extra hours as anyone, and we weren't taking trips to New Orleans and Las Vegas. I don't see these people as duped. They weren't duped. They loved it. They believed that they deserved it."
Board members would have acted to stop Klein's theft had they had any proof, Kennedy says. People like Lewis, and countless others, knew what was going on but didn't speak up, she says.
Using an old Southern expression to describe a pacifier, Kennedy offers an explanation for why Klein got away with his theft for so long: "Too many people were enjoying this sugar-tit."
Vol. 20, Issue 20, Pages 27-32Published in Print: January 31, 2001, as Hands in the Till