Chancellor says EAA has acted to prevent corruption

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
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The leader of Gov. Rick Snyder’s K-12 Detroit school system responded Wednesday to the federal probe of bank records tied to current and former district officials, saying the Education Achievement Authority “has taken every measure possible” to prevent corruption.

“We have placed our trust in our educators and expect them to do everything in their power to improve the situations of the students they serve,” EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme wrote in a statement. “The misuse of funds implied by this investigation is intolerable. If any of those under investigation are found to be guilty, we will take the swiftest possible action against them.”

Conforme said in a letter to EAA staff that the district is cooperating with the investigation.

“The incidents under investigation were originally discovered by an EAA internal review,” she wrote to employees. “The EAA immediately contacted the authorities and has cooperated with the FBI throughout the investigation.”

The chancellor also told employees that while news reports about the investigation “provide a description of the EAA’s past, they do not reflect our present.”

“After joining the EAA and being made aware of the investigation, I immediately implemented greater controls and more stringent surveillance over the use of district finances,” Conforme wrote.

Two weeks after becoming interim chancellor in June 2014, Conforme instituted new travel and expense procedures for staff after The Detroit News reported that nearly $240,000 in travel, gas and IKEA furniture was charged on two credit cards of former Chancellor John Covington in less than two years.

Federal investigators have subpoenaed personnel files and bank records or email account information for more than a dozen current and former EAA officials as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation, The News reported Tuesday evening.

Those former officials include Covington, chief of staff Tyrone Winfrey and former Mumford High School Principal Kenyetta “K.C.” Wilbourn, according to federal grand jury subpoenas obtained by The News.

Federal agents also were interested in contracts with vendors who supplied education materials, student-to-student conflict resolution coaching and sporting goods, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The subpoenas offer new insight into an ongoing investigation into whether officials at the EAA and Detroit Public Schools received bribes or kickbacks from contractors.

Last year, the Justice Department issued subpoenas to the EAA for personnel files and bank account information for seven officials, including Wilbourn.

The details emerged one week after The News first reported that Wilbourn was an FBI target and that agents were investigating multiple officials from both Detroit school districts.

Wilbourn, 40, of Harper Woods, abruptly resigned last fall after FBI agents searched her home. She previously was principal of DPS’ Denby High School.

Wilbourn, who made $140,000 per year at Mumford, resigned on Nov. 19 in a three-sentence email sent to Conforme, that included one last request.

“Please be so kind as to assist me with pay out of the 46 days I have accrued,” Wilbourn wrote to Conforme at 5:10 p.m. that day. “My apologies and best in your endeavors.”

On Nov. 25, Conforme sent then-EAA General Counsel Michelle Crockett a memo detailing “several” conversations she had with Wilbourn as she was preparing to leave the EAA.

Wilbourn confided that she did things that “may appear to be illegal,” Conforme said.

“She would ghost write for vendors and help them respond to RFPs and she said she reported these things to DPS conflicts of interest,” Conforme wrote. “She said she would also take a cut or have vendors over bill and three people for the price of one — she mentioned Esperanza on this issue.”

The FBI inquiry of contracts also focused on the services of Esperanza Detroit, a firm that provides “student advocates” to engage in conflict resolution within EAA schools, records show.

The EAA’s attorney provided an FBI agent with a list of payments to Esperanza Detroit in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years totaling $561,452 and $837,354, respectively.

Conforme said Wilbourn also told her that she “got a vendor to hire her uncle and then would take his money to send to his uncle’s daughter,” according to the letter, which was to be sent to law enforcement officials.

Snyder created the district in 2011 in an attempt to turn around low academic achievement in 15 former Detroit public schools. He addressed the ongoing FBI probe Monday while rolling out a new proposal for overhauling Detroit’s fractured public school system.

“I think it’s fair to say it complicates it,” Snyder said of the corruption probe.

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