Ex-Detroit principal pleads guilty to felony charges

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — A day after state lawmakers vowed to close the Education Achievement Authority, one of its former principals pleaded guilty to felony charges for her role in a kickback scheme in the district.

Kenyetta Wilbourn Snapp entered into a plea Thursday to felony charges of bribery conspiracy and federal income tax evasion. Snapp is accused of taking school funds to enrich herself using EAA contractors.

“I received a bribe, sir,” Snapp told Lawson when asked to describe her crime, later adding: “I betrayed the public trust.”

As part of the plea deal, Snapp has agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in its wide-ranging corruption investigation of the EAA.

The 40-year-old former principal of Mumford and Denby high schools faces 37 to 46 months in prison under a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

If Snapp cooperates with the investigation, prosecutors will reduce her sentence to 20 months.

On Thursday, U.S. Judge David Lawson informed Snapp she must pay a portion of $58,500 in restitution to the EAA and $26,233 to the IRS.

Her sentencing is at 3 p.m. June 1.

Co-defendant Glynis Thornton also entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors on Thursday. Thornton, 53, who owned and operated a tutoring company, pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy for her role in the kickback scheme.

She faces 24-30 months and must also pay the EAA a portion of its restitution $58,500.

In court, Thornton admitted to having a meeting with Snapp and a third defendant, Paulette Horton, during which they planned the scheme.

“I gave money to K.C. Wilbourn in return for contracts for two years,” she said.

Thornton’s sentencing is at 3 p.m. June 7.

In December, a federal grand jury in Detroit indicted Snapp and former EAA contractors Thornton and Horton, several weeks after the FBI subpoenaed personnel files and bank records or email account information for more than a dozen current and former EAA officials.

Horton is charged with bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery and money laundering. Horton’s plea hearing is Feb. 25.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said public corruption crimes are always disappointing, but it is even more heartbreaking when a school principal takes bribes.

“Squandering school funds in exchange for bribes is especially disturbing in this case because Detroit's school children already face so many financial challenges,” McQuade said.

David P. Gelios, special agent in charge, FBI Detroit Division, said Snapp and Thornton’s efforts to divert funds from the struggling Detroit Public School District and students trying to better themselves is particularly disturbing.

“These convictions represent the commitment of the FBI and our partners to expose and shut down schemes that would rob our communities of the education and services that they count on and deserve,” he said.

Snapp, a turnaround specialist, abruptly resigned in fall 2014 after FBI agents searched her home.

Thornton’s company, Making a Difference Everyday, provided after-school tutoring services at Mumford and Denby. Horton was an independent contractor working for MADE.

According to the grand jury indictment, from 2012 to 2014, Snapp selected MADE as the after-school tutoring vendor for both high schools. In exchange, Thornton paid Snapp kickbacks as a reward, investigators said.

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

The indictment alleges Snapp, hired by the EAA in 2012, received 90 percent of the amount of the checks, which totaled more than $58,000 in cash kickbacks.

In October, the FBI and the Justice Department subpoenaed personnel files and bank records as well as email account information for more than a dozen current and former EAA officials as part of a wide-ranging investigation. Snapp was among those employees.

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

Asked whether the investigation into the EAA continues beyond the current case, FBI spokeswoman Jill Washburn said: “It’s an ongoing case for us, and we are unable to comment at this time.”

EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme has declined to be interviewed. Her spokesman, Robert Guttersohn, has said the EAA is satisfied that those responsible for stealing money meant for its students are being held responsible. He also said the district commends the EAA employees who discovered and turned over the questionable contracts to authorities.

“The wrongdoing represents the old EAA. The organization has moved on and progressed in its mission of turning the city's lowest performing schools into the highest performing schools. Not only have we set in place stricter financial controls, but we are also seeing our academic initiatives truly make a difference in the lives of our students,” he 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 12 direct-run and three charter schools, all formerly in Detroit Public Schools. On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said the EAA will come to an end as legislators consider a $715 million plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools.