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Ex-Detroit principal gets year in prison for kickbacks

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Calling her a contradiction for making tremendous contributions to Detroit schoolchildren while also taking school money in a bribery scheme, a federal judge sentenced former Detroit principal Kenyetta Wilbourn Snapp to 12 months and one day in prison.

Snapp, a former principal of Mumford and Denby high schools in the state-run Education Achievement Authority, received far less prison time than the 20 months asked for by prosecutors who acknowledged she provided substantial assistance to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in its wide-ranging corruption investigation of the EAA.

The sentence was also much less than Snapp agreed to in her plea agreement with the government — 37 to 46 months — on felony charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and money laundering.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson told Snapp on Wednesday that she was “somewhat of a contradiction” for enduring sexual abuse as a child, homelessness as a college student and domestic violence as a married woman while still managing to “rise above” to earn colleges degrees, powerful positions in education and raise a son.

“You have paid for funerals of kids who died under your charge, paid for senior trips when a vendor stole money,” Lawson said. “You have contributed so much. But you have taken a bribe, and that’s what brought you in here.”

In December, a federal grand jury in Detroit indicted Snapp and two former EAA contractors on charges they conspired to take school funds to enrich themselves as part of a scheme involving an after-school tutoring company and laundered money in the process.

In court, with her parents and several supporters sitting behind her, and before she was sentenced, Snapp said Wednesday she is deeply saddened, regretful and remorseful for what she did. But the incident, which could have taken her life, has given her new life.

“I don’t seek to be reformed. I’ve been transformed as a person,” Snapp said. “I allowed my integrity to be corrupted. I am not a bad person. I am a good person who made a bad choice.”

Lawson is allowing Snapp, 40, who took $58,000 in kickbacks in the scheme, to report to the Bureau of Prison on Aug. 30 to allow her to help her son make the move to Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Snapp must pay $58,500 in restitution to the EAA and $26,233 to the Internal Revenue Service.

“Ms. Snapp deserves to spend time in prison for her betrayal of public trust, but this sentence demonstrates the value of early cooperation to provide information about the criminal acts of others,” U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said.

Snapp was seen as a rising star, a 4-foot-11 turnaround specialist at Denby High 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.

Her co-defendants 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 grand jury indictment, Snapp from 2012-2014 selected M.A.D.E. as the afterschool tutoring vendor for both high schools. In exchange, Thornton paid Snapp kickbacks as a reward for selecting and retaining M.A.D.E. as a vendor.

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.

Horton and Thornton have also entered guilty pleas in the case and are to be sentenced later this month.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Frances Carlson said Snapp was a high-ranking public official in the school district who took 11 bribes over one year.

“This was not a single incident. ... It shook the faith of the city of Detroit and the school system,” Carlson said.

Once Snapp was caught, she immediately cooperated with the prosecution of other EAA defendants and the prosecution of some of the 13 former and current Detroit Public School principals charged in a $2.7 million vendor kickback scheme.

Snapp’s attorney, William Mitchell III, said she has become the poster child in the media for “all that has gone wrong” with Detroit education.

Snapp, who worked for DPS as a principal before she came to the EAA in 2012, sat with federal prosecutors and discussed loopholes in DPS’ vendor system and offered solutions the district should consider as it moved forward to reduce fraud, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said Snapp had “no choice” but to do business with these vendors because she worked in schools with no computers or resources. And when vendors stopped getting paid by the district, they made deals with Snapp, he said.

“What happened is vendors began extending services without additional payment. They sought something extra for that,” Mitchell said.

An EAA spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

JChambers@detroitnews.com