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Grand jury indicts ex-EAA principal, 2 others

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A federal grand jury in Detroit has indicted a former Educational Achievement Authority principal and an after-school tutoring vendor on multiple charges, including conspiracy and bribery.

U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade unsealed the five-count indictment on Thursday that alleges Kenyetta Wilbourn-Snapp, former principal of Mumford and Denby high schools, conspired to commit bribery and money laundering from August 2012 through November 2014.

Also charged in the indictment are Glynis Thornton, whose company, Making a Difference Everyday (“M.A.D.E.”), provided after-school tutoring services at Mumford and Denby; and Paulette Horton, who was an independent contractor working for M.A.D.E.

According to the indictment, Wilbourn-Snapp selected M.A.D.E. as the after-school tutoring vendor for both high schools. In exchange, Thornton paid Wilbourn-Snapp kickbacks as a reward for selecting and retaining M.A.D.E. as a vendor, investigators said.

Thornton disguised payments to Wilbourn-Snapp by having checks issued payable to Horton’s company, rather than paying Wilbourn-Snapp directly. Horton would then deposit and withdraw the money and give it to Wilbourn-Snapp, according to the indictment.

The indictment states Wilbourn-Snapp, hired by the EAA in 2012, received 90 percent of the amount of the checks, which totaled $58,0505 in cash kickbacks.

Wilbourn-Snapp is also charged with tax evasion for failing to report $26,233 in income during taxable year 2012. Horton is also charged with failing to file individual tax returns for year 2011 for her income of $50,982.

Wilbourn-Snapp, 40, of Harper Woods was seen as a rising star, a 4-foot, 11-inch turnaround specialist at Denby High School with a 2007 Maserati and a “GUCCI1” personalized license plate. She later joined Mumford and abruptly resigned last fall after FBI agents searched her home.

The defendants face up to 30 years in prison on the felony count of program bribery and up to 20 years for money laundering, also a felony. They are expected to be arraigned as soon as Friday.

None of the three was immediately available to comment on the indictment. Only Thornton had retained counsel as of Thursday afternoon.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge David Lawson.

In October, the FBI and Justice Department 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. Wilbourn-Snapp was among those employees.

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.

“It is incredibly disheartening when school officials and vendors steal money that was intended to educate students, as these charges allege,” McQuade said. “We appreciate the full cooperation of the EAA in this matter.”

FBI Special Agent in Charge David P. Gelios said the investigation showed Wilbourn-Snapp and her associates took resources allocated by the state of Michigan to educate children and diverted funds for their personal gain.

“There can be no tolerance for this abuse of authority. Entrusted by the community to facilitate educational excellence in Detroit’s schools, those indicted betrayed that trust,” Gelios said. “The FBI, and our partners in this investigation, will always work diligently to bring to justice public officials who selfishly misuse their positions and place their own interests above those they were hired to serve.”

EAA chancellor Veronica Conforme said Thursday that after months of collaborating with the FBI, the district is satisfied that those responsible are finally being held accountable.

“I commend the EAA staff and outside reviewers who brought these issues to light and reported them to the authorities. While this is a learning moment for the EAA, we cannot let it distract us from our greater mission of ensuring all children succeed,” she said.

Gov. Rick Snyder created the EAA in 2011 as a school district to turn around Detroit’s lowest performing public schools. It has been widely criticized for misspending, failing to improve academic performance among its K-12 students and declining enrollment. It operates 15 former Detroit Public Schools.

Dave Murray, spokesman for the governor, said on Thursday, “Money invested in education is an investment in our children and their future, and it is heartbreaking to see the charges today.”

“We appreciate the diligence of EAA auditors who uncovered these problems and Chancellor Conforme for setting in place safeguards to ensure that money intended for the classroom will be spent there,” Murray said. “It's important that we now continue focusing on providing EAA children with the education they need to be successful.”