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EAA contractor gets prison time for bribery scheme

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

An Education Achievement Authority contractor who laundered kickback payments as part of a bribery scheme at the district was sentenced to 15 months in prison after she cooperated with the public corruption investigation.

Paulette Horton was sentenced Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson for her felony conviction on conspiracy to commit federal program bribery and failure to file federal income taxes stemming from a scheme at the EAA from 2012 to 2014.

Horton asked the judge for leniency, saying she cared for an ailing brother and “had tried to do the right thing in life” despite her prior felony conviction in 1999 for embezzlement from wards of Wayne County Probate Court and attempting to evade income tax.

“I apologize to the court for allowing myself to be back in this position,” Horton said in a reference to her prior convictions. ... In spite of my wrongdoings I’ve tried to do the right thing in life.”

Lawson sentenced her to prison with two years of supervised release after. She must pay $58,500 in restitution with her co-defendants in the case, Kenyetta Wilbourn Snapp and Glynis Thornton.

Lawson gave her until Sept. 30 to report to the Bureau of Prisons to allow her to find care for an ailing brother.

In a guilty plea she made on Feb. 23, Horton admitted to participating in a scheme to make illegal kickbacks payments to Snapp, the former Mumford and Denby high school principal. The money came from Horton’s own afterschool tutoring business and Thornton’s business, Making a Difference Everyday (“M.A.D.E.”).

Thornton’s company provided afterschool tutoring services at Mumford and Denby. Horton was an independent contractor working for M.A.D.E.

According to a grand jury indictment, Snapp selected M.A.D.E. as the after-school 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, Picking up the Pieces Inc., rather than paying Snapp directly. Horton would then deposit and withdraw the money and give it to Snapp, according to the indictment.

Between April 2013 and July 2014, Horton make 11 kickback payments totaling $58,050 from Thornton to Snapp. Each time Horton benefited by retaining about 10 percent of the kickback payment, prosecutors said.

During 2011, Horton failed to file federal income tax return although she earned $50,982 in income.

As part of her plea agreement, Horton was facing 27 to 33 months in prison. But after cooperating with the government’s investigation into the EAA, prosecutors are recommending a lighter sentence.

Horton had asked Lawson for a lower sentence that the government is offering that is “commensurate with the cooperation provided.”

Horton was charged in 1999 as part of an FBI and IRS investigation into Guardian Inc. of Wayne County. Federal prosecutors charged Horton, the company president, and two co-defendant with embezzling more than $250,000 from people who were wards of Wayne County Probate Court.

Guardian Inc. was supposed to manage the financial affairs and provide housing and other help to people whom a judge determined were incompetent to care for themselves.

Instead, prosecutors said Horton and two others charged took unauthorized money from seven people. Prosecutors allege some of the money was used for $43,000 in remodeling work on Horton's home and to pay for her $3,480 dental bills.

Horton was sentenced to 30 months in prison and three years of supervised release in the case. She was released from prison in May 2002.

She still owes about $240,000 in restitution in that case, according to Lawson.

Lawson said a custodial sentence was necessary in this EAA case because of her priors which includes a 2005 conviction for operating while intoxicated.

“The message has been sent but not fully received,” Lawson said.

In a sentencing memorandum filed with the court, Horton’s attorney, Sequoia DuBose, asked Lawson to consider that Horton adopted four of her grandnieces.

DuBose said Horton, along with her sister, cares for a brother who suffers from cerebellar degeneration disease. If Horton is jailed, the brother will have to go to a nursing facility, the motion says.

“Ms. Horton is devastated by the fact that she has let her family down by her criminal actions and deeply regrets her participation,” DuBose said in a motion filed June 7.

Snapp and Thornton also entered guilty pleas in the case. Snapp was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison. Thornton will be sentenced Sept. 13.

Robert Guttersohn, a spokesman for the EAA, said he cannot speak to the screening process before the financial oversight changes were put in place at the EAA in 2014.

But the current policy calls for a background check on all contractors, Guttersohn said, but not an automatic rejection for anyone with a conviction.

“It’s a case by case basis. If a background check comes back showing a criminal record for a potential employee or contractor, Central Office reviews the conviction and determines whether it is related to the task they are to perform in our schools,” Guttersohn said.

JChambers@detroitnews.com