2 more plead guilty in DPS kickbacks scheme

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit — Two current and former Detroit Public School principals pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday in a $2.7 million fraud scheme at the district lasting from 2009 to 2015.

James Hearn, principal of Marcus Garvey Academy, and Nina Graves-Hicks, former principal of Davis Aerospace Tech High, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts to conspiracy to commit federal program bribery for their roles in the scheme in which 13 former and current DPS school officials and one school vendor were charged.

Hearn, 50, of West Bloomfield Township faces 18 to 24 months in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 8. He also was ordered to pay $11,500 in restitution to DPS.

Hearn currently is suspended from his DPS post, he said in court Thursday. He has been employed at the district for more than 20 years and was pursuing a doctorate from Wayne State University in educational leadership.

Detroiter Graves-Hicks, 52, faces 24 to 30 months in prison when she is sentenced Sept. 7. She also was ordered to pay $27,385 in restitution to the district.

The former principal currently is unemployed, according to her testimony Thursday. She spent more than 20 years in DPS before a short stint at Ecorse Public Schools that ended this year as criminal charges were filed.

Graves-Hicks also was pursuing a doctorate, from the University of Phoenix, she said.

In entering the pleas, Hearn and Graves-Hicks gave up their rights to appeal, as long as they are sentenced within the guidelines announced Thursday. They each faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted at trial.

Both are expected to cooperate with the government’s investigation into other individuals involved in criminal activity, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frances Carlson said in court.

That expectation mirrors orders imposed on other defendants who previously have pleaded guilty in the case.

“A number of these people are cooperating,” Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Buckley said Wednesday following former DPS principal Stanley Johnson’s plea hearing.

Buckley declined to comment when asked if the cooperation was expected to lead to more individuals charged.

A third plea deal scheduled Thursday for former Spain Elementary principal Ronald Alexander was postponed until May 18. Alexander, who retired April 1, previously made headlines in February when he accepted a $500,000 donation from the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” for technology updates, campus renovations and additional staff funding.

Officials with Lowe’s, the sponsor of the gift, have said the school will still receive the funds despite its principal’s criminal case.

The vendor charged in the case, Norman Shy, is accused of submitting fraudulent invoices to DPS for goods he did not deliver. Instead, he had DPS officials sign off on the invoices in exchange for bribes and gave kickbacks totaling $908,518. The scheme deprived DPS students of more than $2.7 million in resources, officials have said.

Thursday’s hearings came after a number of other defendants entered guilty pleas in the case.

Johnson, 62-year-old former principal of Hutchinson Elementary who retired effective April 16, pleaded guilty Tuesday before U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh to a charge of federal bribery conspiracy. He faces 30-37 months in prison and is due back in federal court Sept. 12 for sentencing.

Earlier this week, Clara Flowers, former assistant superintendent of DPS’ Office of Specialized Student Services and former principal of Henderson Academy, appeared Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts to enter her guilty plea. She faces between 57 and 71 months in prison on felony charges of tax evasion and federal bribery conspiracy when she faces sentencing Sept. 6.

Tanya Bowman, a former principal at Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology, also pleaded guilty to federal bribery conspiracy on Tuesday before Roberts. She faces 18 to 24 months in prison at sentencing Sept. 8.

Both Flowers and Bowman remained on unpaid administrative leave at the district.

Another defendant, former Thirkell Elementary principal Clara Smith, entered a guilty plea last week to federal bribery conspiracy. She faces 46 and 57 months in prison at sentencing Sept. 7.

Shy, the accused ringleader of the scheme, is charged with federal bribery conspiracy and tax evasion. He has a plea hearing May 11 and faces up to five years in prison on each count.

Prosecutors have reached plea deals with 12 of the 14 defendants in U.S. District Court. The people and their plea hearing dates are:

■ May 11: Shy; Ronnie Sims, former principal at Fleming Elementary and Brenda Scott Middle School; and Gerlma Johnson, former principal at Drew Academy and Earhart Elementary-Middle School. Johnson will retire from the district on May 1.

■ May 12: Tia’ Von Moore-Patton, 46, principal of Jerry White Center High School.

■ May 20: Beverly Campbell, former principal at Rosa Parks School and Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School.

■ Willye Pearsall, a former principal at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, does not yet have a plea hearing scheduled.

At least one more official faces charges but has not yet been arraigned, according to officials.

Prosecutors expect Bennett Elementary principal Josette Buendia to turn herself in for arraignment in the near future.

Buendia is accused of conspiring with Shy from November 2011 through January 2015 to accept kickbacks and gift cards totaling $45,775.


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