Judge accused of bilking child welfare system back on bench

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An Oklahoma County District Judge, Tammy Bass-LeSure, was back at work on Thursday, two weeks after she was charged with felony fraud for taking foster care payments for twins that she adopted, but secretly gave to another woman to raise.

“I’m doing what the citizens elected me to do, and I will continue to do so. I will continue to fight to clear my name and to work hard,” she said from her desk in her chambers.

Bass-LeSure was first elected to the bench 12 years ago, and until recently, handled criminal cases. Lately, she had been hearing adoption, probate and guardianship cases, although authorities said she will no longer be involved in adoption cases.

The judge has been on paid leave after she was charged with the crimes. As an elected official, she can only be removed from her position by the state Court of the Judiciary, which has not taken action on the matter.

Judge Tammy-Bass LeSure, 43, and husband Karlos Antonio LeSure, 46, allegedly took $22,000 in foster care reimbursements from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services beginning in January 2008, when they agreed to become foster parents of the infant boy and girl. The DHS paid the pair $730 per month.

Around the same time, according to prosecutors, they gave the children to LeSure’s bailiff’s sister, Ravona Latrice Edwards, who has been raising the children ever since. Edwards told investigators that other than DHS payments to day-care providers, she had not received any compensation or assistance for the care of the children.

The judge was charged with 30 counts of making fraudulent claims and two counts of perjury, while her husband was charged with two counts of making a false claim and two counts of perjury. The district attorney’s chief investigator said that the judge used some of the money in Texas and Maryland “at spas, nail salons and casinos,” according to an affidavit that was part of the filing.

Prosecutors said that the judge took repeated actions to suppress the truth about who had custody of the children “through trick, false appearances and/or unfair acts.”

The judge and her husband have had financial troubles in recent years, filing for bankruptcy in 2009, reporting debts of more than $1 million.

The judge currently earns over $120,000 from her post.

Information from: The Oklahoman

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Corruption sweep boots five more N.J. sewer agency employees, chief finance officer resigns

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In what is shaping up as a broad sweep in the executive offices of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners, the agency’s chief financial officer stepped down yesterday, and five more employees – mostly connected to commissioners that resigned last week, were fired.

Kenneth Pentigore, the agency’s chief financial officer, handed in his resignation on Wednesday, only one week after six of the agency’s seven commissioners resigned, following  allegations of widespread corruption by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Pentigore was previously a commissioner himself, and was given the CFO job by his former PVSC commissioners.

While he was a commissioner, Pentigore helped get jobs at the PVSC for his son, daughter and daughter-in-law, all of whom still work there.

Critics of the agency had long criticized its commissioners for steering plum jobs to the families of its commissioners and the politically connected, using a formal system similar to the NFL draft, in which commissioners took turns filling job slots.

Those fired in yesterday’s action included the wife and brother of former commissioner Carl Czaplicki, one of the commissioners who resigned last week under pressure from Christie. His wife, Vanessa, was a multimedia technician earning $70,676 per year, and brother John Czaplicki, was a liquid waste specialist making $90,000 per year.

The other fired employees include Kevin Bolan, an $82,500-a-year account clerk; Kevin Holland, an $81,300 EMS coordinator; and Maureen Critchley, an administrative clerk making $66,300.

Four of the employees fired on Wednesday worked for two of the men that were arrested and fired one day earlier, for using agency employees to routinely perform repair and improvement work on their homes, and homes owned by friends and relatives.

The men fired on Tuesday included Anthony Ardis of Paterson, a former commissioner who was serving as a clerk to the board of commissioners and making more than $200,000 per year; Kevein Keogh of Roseland, a superintendent of special services making $186,201 per year; and Chester Mazza, the assistant manager of special services, who was paid $127,276 per year.

The three men face criminal charges of official misconduct for using PVSC employees during working hours to perform tens of thousands of dollars of work on private homes, while under their direction.

Also on Wednesday, authorities discovered a hole in the floor of the office of agency executive director, Wayne Forrest.  The hole connected to a utility room below, and was apparently use for eavesdropping on conversations and meetings in the executive’s office.

After discovering the hole, Forrest asked state police to oversee security at the PVSC Newark facility. “I asked for their assistance to assess the security here,” he said. Police officers will supervise all duties associated with security and review the qualifications of the current PVSC in-house security officers, along with assessing the physical security of the facility, he said.

“We are continuing our efforts for a reorganization of the agency and will be looking at all aspects of its operations,” Forrest said. “It is my intention for a comprehensive review of every function of this agency.”

Information from: The Star-Ledger

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Three officials at N.J. sewer agency charged with corruption, fired

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New Jersey’s largest sewerage authority was hit with new allegations Tuesday when three administrators were arrested and charged with official misconduct for allegedly using employees to perform personal home improvements and repairs during work hours.

Attorney General Paula Dow announced charges against Anthony Ardis of Paterson, Kevin Keogh of Roseland and Chester Mazza of Totowa, all employees of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners. Ardis, a former commissioner now serving as a clerk to the board of commissioners, is paid more than $200,000, according to Criminal Justice Director Stephen Taylor.

Keogh made $186,201 as superintendent of special services, who was hired in 1999 as a safety inspector at a rate of $48,633. He was provided with an agency vehicle, a 2009 Dodge Durango. Mazza was the assistant superintendent of special services, was paid $127,276 and also provided with a vehicle.

All three were arrested at the commissioners’ office in Newark, and bail for each was set at $75,000.

“This was arrogance and greed by supervisors and officials,” Dow said.  “It was treating subordinates like personal handymen, at the expense of the public. This conduct is really outrageous and shouldn’t be tolerated in any public entity.”

The arrests came a week after Gov. Chris Christie said he would remove six of the sewer authority’s seven commissioners for ethics violations that included hiring family members and funneling contracts to politically connected businesses.

This week, executive director Wayne Forrest said he had ordered salary cuts for all employees making more than $100,000 and would institute new ethics rules.

According to the criminal complaint released Tuesday, workers tore down wallboard and installed wood panels at Ardis’ mother’s home in Paterson and replaced two air conditioning units at the home of his girlfriend. Employees allegedly worked on a deck, replacement windows and kitchen cabinets at Keogh’s house.

Mazza had a roof vent installed and an exterior wall repaired at his house, the complaint alleges.

The workmen, all skilled tradesmen employed by the authority, weren’t paid separately and made little attempt to hide what they were doing, according to Taylor.

“It was out in the open,” he said. “They took the PVS truck and drove it to someone’s private residence while in uniform and did work on someone’s house.” Taylor said some of the workmen may have kept quiet about the arrangement for fear of retaliation, but added that others offered information to investigators voluntarily.

The violations date back to 2006, Dow said. Under a tougher law passed in April 2007, official misconduct carries a mandatory minimum five-year prison term upon conviction. The maximum term is 10 years.

A person who answered the phone at Keogh’s house Tuesday said Keogh had been instructed not to comment on the allegations. Ardis did not return a phone message seeking comment, and Mazza and Forrest could not be reached by phone.

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Corruption trial begins for former New Orleans politician Gill Pratt

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Former New Orleans councilwoman and Louisiana state rep. Renee Gill Pratt is heading to court this week in her racketeering and corruption trial. Gill Pratt is accused of conspiring with several family members of her mentor, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, to loot three bogus non-profits they controlled of more than $1 million in taxpayer monies.

Gill Pratt, 56, was a member of the state House from 1991 to 2002 and a New Orleans councilwoman from 2002 through 2006.

She is accused of helping secure $1 million in public funds for three bogus non-profits, which then distributed the monies to members of former U.S Rep. William Jefferson's family.

Two principal figures in the scheme, Jefferson’s sister Betty Johnson and her daughter, Angela Coleman, pleaded guilty last year to charges of mail fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and aggravated identity theft. Both women are expected to be the prosecutor’s key witnesses against Gill Pratt.

Another defendant in the conspiracy, Mose Jefferson, brother to Betty and William, is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence on a bribery conviction in another case. Mose is also the former boyfriend of Gill Pratt.

The case covers a period of 15 years, during which the defendants, described collectively by prosecutors as a “criminal enterprise,” obtained government funds for non-profits to benefit the poor, and then diverted the funds for their own use. Authorities say that Gill Pratt’s lead role was to obtain city and state funding for the non-profits. She is also accused of helping launder the monies.

Once William Jefferson and Gill Pratt steered the public funds to the non-profits, Betty Jefferson, Coleman, and Jefferson sister Brenda Foster, now deceased, wrote checks to themselves, family members and companies they controlled. In some instances, funds were used to bankroll improvements on properties owned by family members.

Prosecutors also accused Gill Pratt of corruption charges for misusing city vehicles and defrauding taxpayers on rents she paid for a satellite office in a building owned by Mose Jefferson.

After Hurricane Katrina, DaimlerChrysler donate vehicles to the city for its recovery efforts, and Gill Pratt claimed four of them as her own. The vehicles were used personally by Gill Pratt, Mose Jefferson and other relatives and friends, even though they all knew the vehicles were to be used exclusively for the recovery effort.

When she lost her bid for another term in city council in May 2006, Gill Pratt transferred the titles in all the vehicles to Care Unlimited and another bogus non-profit controlled by the Jeffersons. After the matter became public, she bowed to public outrage and returned all the vehicles.

While she was a councilwoman, prosecutors accused Gill Pratt of using city funds to rent a satellite office in a building secretly owned by Mose Jefferson. Over a three year period, she paid over $70,000 to rent one of the eight suites in the building, even though Jefferson had only paid $10,000 to purchase the entire building.

If convicted, Gill Pratt could get up to 20 years in prison.

In November 2009, William Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison on a bribery conviction, the longest sentence ever handed down to a congressman for any type of crime. He is free on bail while appealing the conviction.

Information from: The Times-Picayune

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More trouble at Philadelphia School District, exec accused of bid-rigging

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The Philadelphia School District’s chief procurement officer, John J. Byars, has been accused of bid-rigging by a lawyer representing the firm that lost out on a lucrative contract to maintain the district’s Board Street headquarters, and the PHA’s senior management apparently agrees.

Byars was accused of steering a multimillion dollar management contract to U.S. Facilities, Inc. a subsidiary of a minority-owned company run by Willie F. Johnson, a former state and city official, according to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Former City Solicitor, Carl E. Singley, who represents the firm currently handling the contract, Elliot-Lewis Corp., said that Byars interfered with the competitive bidding process, causing the contract to be awarded to U. S Facilities, Inc. The contract is valued at $2.4 million each year and covers operations, maintenance, and food service at the facility.

Singley’s claims were backed up in a memo written by Jeffrey D. Cardwell, the PSD’s senior vice president for facilities management. The memo called the process “biased” and read in part “the Procurement Office made comments about who they should select.” It said that the intent was clear that U.S. Facilities was the favored vendor.

The school district’s general counsel issued a statement in response to information requests by The Inquirer, saying that PHA lawyers had reviewed the bidding process and “determined that there were anomalies present. Based upon this information and as part of our continued commitment to fairness and transparency in our contracting and procurement efforts, we decided to . . . start the process over.”

A source knowledgeable with the parties said that prior to the bidding process for the contract, Byars made it known that “it was his mission to make sure that Elliott-Lewis did not get the contract. That was a firm statement from him on numerous occasions.”

When Elliot-Lewis made their presentation, Byars was present, which was not typical for such a meeting. The source said that Byars asked “some mean-spirited questions that Elliot-Lewis couldn’t answer. That’s the telltale sign. He was meddling.”

The source went on to say that Byars was making “smart-ass, offhand remarks for the purpose of undermining the process, …and shuffling through (PowerPoint) slides on paper, muttering in an audible voice, ‘Well, this doesn’t make any sense.’ He was definitely there to disrupt things.”

Based on the chain of events, Cardwell suggested that the School Reform Commission, which oversees the district, extend the Elliot-Lewis contract through June, and start over with the bidding process.

The parent company of U.S. Facilities, PRWT Services, Inc. is a politically connected operation that was formed in 1988 by Johnson, a former regional commissioner of the State Office of Social Service. A lobbyist currently under contract with the PSD, Melonease Shaw, was an executive at PRWT for 15 years.

On Dec. 13, Byars and five other PSD executives were suspended over a controversial $7.5 million contract involving the installation of surveillance cameras at 19 of the district’s high schools. The district’s superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman abruptly fired a contractor that had already started services on the project, and awarded it to a little-known minority firm that was not on the state-approved list to handle the work.

The matter is currently under investigation by the state attorney general’s office and the Pa. Department of Education.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Florida politician arrested on corruption charges for aiding developer

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The former vice mayor of Fort Lauderdale, Cindi Hutchinson, 53, was arrested on Friday and charged with corruption in trading political favors for over $14,000 of gifts from a real estate developer seeking zoning changes.

Broward County prosecutors charged Hutchinson with three counts of unlawful compensation, four counts of official misconduct, and one count each of grand theft, petty theft, conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation, and perjury.

The charges center on Hutchinson’s involvement in the rezoning of land owned by controversial developer Glenn Wright, in 2003 and 2004. At the time, Wright was seeking a zoning change on land that would enable him to build large luxury-style homes in an area that was near much smaller homes.

While Hutchinson was serving on the city commission that was responsible for granting the approvals, prosecutors say that Wright’s business partner, Steve Goldstrom, ordered subcontractors to make improvements at the Edgewood home shared by Hutchinson and her mother.

Goldstrom, 54, a former manager of exotic car business, The Toy Store, was also arrested on Friday and charged with one count of perjury.

Authorities say that subcontractors installed a new toilet, a surround sound system, special pool lighting, fencing, pavers and performed air conditioning repair work.  The improvements were done after Hutchinson voted to grant Wright the zoning changes on his La Preserve and Georgian Oaks developments.

Prosecutors said that when investigators asked about the work done at her home, she lied about it and denied knowing any of Wright’s business associates.

Bruce Udolf, Hutchinson’s lawyer, said she will fight the charges. “Any work that was done was a personal favor between friends and there was absolutely no quid pro quo. Any favors that were done for her by her friends were not given in exchange for an official act.”

Hutchinson, a registered Democrat, was on the city commission for nine years until she termed out in March 2009. While on the commission, critics said that she used her elected position to solicit monies for charity from people that had business with the city. Because of her actions, the city passed a law in 2007 prohibiting elected officials from the practice.

more at The Miami Herald

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Texas officials indicted in Hurricane Ike kickback scheme

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John “Phil” Fitzgerald, 51, a Liberty County judge for 4 years and Herman “Lee” Groce, 62, a Liberty County precinct commissioner for 24 years, were named in a 25-count indictment handed down by a federal grand jury on Jan. 26. Fitzgerald’s brother-in-law, Mark Wayne Miksch, 52, was also charged in the conspiracy.

The indictment charges the men with fraud, kickbacks, bribery and conspiracy, in connection with a fraudulent kickback scheme, using FEMA emergency relief funds obtained by the county after the Sept. 13 2008 Hurricane Ike disaster.

The indictments charge that Fitzgerald and Croce used their political influence to award an inflated $3.2 million debris removal contract to a local business, C & C Lumber, with the understanding that C & C would subcontract approximately $1.6 million of the work to Miksch. From the monies received by Miksch, $611,000 was paid to Fitzgerald in kickbacks, disguised to appear as a legitimate business transactions.

Croce claimed to “audit” the C & C bills for reimbursement by the county, and both Croce and Fitzgerald approved them.

Fitzgerald is also accused of taking a FEMA generator at a critical time when the area had no power, and use it to power his gas station and convenience store in Moss Hill, when most other area businesses were shut down. While others were temporarily out of business, he was able to profit from the disaster.

Joseph C. Hawthorn, an attorney for Fitzgerald released a statement which read, “Judge Fitzgerald has fully cooperated with the investigation, has nothing to hide and has committed no crime. … Had the Government allowed us the opportunity to present our side of the story before seeking an indictment, we are confident there would be no indictment. However, because of their refusal, we will now have to have a trial in this case, at considerable expense to Judge Fitzgerald and the taxpayers, in order for us to tell our side of the story.”

Both Fitzgerald and Croce lost their bids for re-election in November, as part of a near sweep by Republicans taking over Liberty County government.

If convicted, the defendants face up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge and from five to 30 years in federal prison for the additional charges.

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