A Public Records Request by a candidate running for the Johnston County Board of Education has revealed more troubling allegations against Johnston County School administrators. Serious allegations involving deleted computer files by a director, improper bidding, inflated invoices, unethical conduct, and the use of school resources for personal gain are some of the newly uncovered documents school board candidate Rick Mercier believes were mistakenly released to him during a recent request for financial records.
“I believe it was probably a mistake,” Mr. Mercier said. “I don’t think those emails really fell within the purview of what I requested. Of course, that doesn’t mean the public doesn’t have a right to know about some of the details of that investigation, including what wrongdoing, if any, was uncovered and what the financial impact was to the school system and taxpayers.”
Mercier shared some of those emails with Johnston County Report. They center around a 2017 internal investigation conducted by Johnston County Schools. Details have not been made public until now.
On January 12, 2017, Johnston County Schools Internal Auditor Tracy Stubblefield emailed Chairman Mike Wooten stating:
“Dr. Renfrow informed me that he has made you aware of the ongoing investigation performed by our Human Resources Department following various allegations regarding staff members at Facility Services. Since some of those allegations are related to fraud (use of resources for personal gain, personal gain from vendor relations, staff members not following the proper bidding policies, approving inflated invoice amounts, etc.” Dr. Renfrow directed the Chief Business Officer to include me in the investigation process. I need your permission to perform an independent audit of the financial fraud allegations, separate from the HR investigation.
I also need your permission to request copies of all supporting documentation to these financial fraud allegations that have been obtained by our HR Department. Per my suggestion, the IT Department has obtained over 200 deleted computer files from one of the Facility Services directors and gave this information to HR. I am requesting access to the financial-related documents that were retrieved from these deleted files, as well as other financial documentation gathered during this investigation.”
On January 30, 2017, Chairman Wooten replied to the email stating, “You have my permission to perform a I dependent (sp) investigation as (sp) gain access to documents and report your findings to the board.”
“Obviously, the emails pertaining to possible fraud in Facility Services are extremely troubling,” Mercier said. “I asked for more details, but the school system told me they could not release anything pertaining to their internal investigation because it was a personnel matter. I would be interested in knowing if law enforcement was ever brought in to do an investigation. If they weren’t, why not? I believe the public is entitled at least to the results of the investigation even if no names are divulged.”
We provided copies of those internal emails to Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle. In an email, Mrs. Doyle said, “JCS never requested that the DA’s Office conduct any type of investigation into that matter back in 2017. That is the first I have seen any emails like that suggesting potential fraud.”
Johnston County Manager Rick Hester said JCS never notified County Commissioners of the fraud allegations. I don’t recall us being notified and probably wouldn’t have been notified unless the allegations were substantiated.”
Johnston County Report reached out to Mr. Wooten and Johnston County Schools for a comment about the investigation. A joint statement was released by email stating, “While the review referenced in your request did not reveal any violation of criminal laws, any refinements of practices and procedures were addressed administratively. The investigation documents are confidential personnel records as defined by G.S. 115C-319. We are not permitted to release them or to specifically identify any personnel action that was taken as a result of the investigation. The school system would notify law enforcement of any report of violence, mistreatment of students, or financial crimes involving school funds.”
Brooks Fuller, a professor at Elon who is director of the NC Open Government Coalition, has this to offer about the Facility Services probe. “The personnel statute is very broad and covers all investigatory material of individual employees until there is a decision on discipline. Then, and only then, does the statute trigger some disclosure requirements where they have to state the reason for dismissal. But it does not require stating any reason for other discipline. The personnel statute has a major blindspot: what happens when there is an investigation of an entire department or unit? Well, that’s not clearly covered as an individual personnel record, but it also includes some personnel investigations. So the government unit usually says the whole thing is exempt. We do not have any cases that tell us otherwise, and I think judges could differ on how they view such a case.”
Ronald Johnson had just been elected to the school board when the 2017 fraud investigation got underway. He believes the entire investigation was a vendetta against certain Facility Services employees. “I remember saying we should call law enforcement in to investigate because of the allegations of criminal activity and someone else saying ‘it’s a personnel matter’. A few months later, I personally considered the investigation unfounded and an attempt to push targeted employees out of their position or force them out of the system. I can’t say with certainty nothing happened but no one has ever presented me with any proof. However, I do think motives beyond conducting a genuine investigation existed and there was a vendetta against these employees.”
Mr. Johnson also expressed concerns about how the internal emails, not subject to disclosure under the Public Records Law, were mistakenly released. It’s the second mistaken release of emails this year. “How do documents keep getting released by “mistake”? If this, in fact, was a mistake. I’m confident (interim superintendent) Dr. Williams will identify any problems with the release of information and take the appropriate action to correct the issues because this is not an accurate depiction of Johnston County Schools, where thousands of employees, currently go above and beyond everyday to help kids. My thanks go out to the employees who are holding strong through the blitz and flurry of negativity. Keep doing what you do for students, because so much depends on it.”
“What doesn’t make a lot of sense to me is the administrative body under the superintendent doesn’t do a lot,” school board candidate Michelle Antoine said. “We have a great amount of dysfunction in the financial oversight of the budget, and the people that are overseeing these budgets should be catching these things. I agree with Rick’s sentiments, it should have been investigated (by law enforcement) and have an outside agency look into it. I agree with that. I believe we have a lot of situations with Brian Vetrano’s office. I believe that whole branch needs to be looked at very carefully.”
School board candidate Melynda Slay said, “Our BOE members have worked hard and done a lot of good through their service to this county! However, we all make mistakes and it seems some of this group are more interested in burying their mistakes than acknowledging them, learning from them and working with stakeholders to resolve them. They are asking for a “unity” agreement which seems to limit the voice of some while providing a route to keep mistakes hidden. I don’t understand the seeming lack of concern over the damaged reputation of Bennet Jones or the harm caused to individuals involved with Clayton High School. These 2017 allegations related to facility services fraud – use of resources for personal gain, personal gain from vendor relations, staff members not following proper bidding policies, approving inflated invoice amounts, etc. – are just one more reason to request a line by line wellness audit. Depending on what those involved in this 2017 fraud investigation reveal, we may want to strongly consider a forensic audit, instead. An audit that is not overseen by a former superintendent who is financially tied to Cenergistic. I would like to think, if someone was involved in wrongdoing in our school system, the responsible individual would be called out and held accountable immediately. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen that isn’t always exactly the case. We’ve been told of serious allegations of sexual harassment, but no real public assurances have been made stating the accused party involved has been completely removed from school service. I honestly have a hard time believing we have any criminally fraudulent individuals employed by our county, but we do seem to have folks who are spending funds in a manner that doesn’t seem to prioritize students, teachers and schools. We need to identify the specific issues that lead to our current financial crises and make certain the bleeding is stopped.”