Ex-DPS principal Buendia wants trial over bribe charges

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Snubbing a plea deal that would have cut her prison time for helping the government with its criminal case, former Detroit Public Schools principal Josette Buendia is taking her chances with a jury and heading to trial on charges she took bribes and kickbacks from a school supply vendor.

On Wednesday, Buendia appeared in federal court with her attorney to tell U.S. District Court Judge George Caram Steeh that she had declined an offer from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit to plead guilty to felony bribery charges and wanted a jury of her peers to decide her fate on charges that could send her to prison for up to 10 years.

Buendia, former principal at Bennett Elementary, was indicted in June in connection with $2.7 million wide-reaching bribery scandal that collared 12 other DPS officials and school vendor Norman Shy. She faces two felony counts of federal program bribery and one count of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery.

On Wednesday, Steeh questioned Buendia for several minutes, asking her repeatedly if she understood she faced less jail time under a plea agreement with prosecutors if she accepted responsibility for her crimes and cooperated in the investigation.

Under the terms of the plea offer, Buendia’s sentencing guidelines called for 46 to 57 months in prison.

Without the agreement, if convicted, Buendia’s sentencing guidelines would increase to 63 to 78 months, Steeh said.

“So there is a significant difference in exposure if you’re found guilty,” Steeh told Buendia.

“Yes, I understand,” Buendia responded.

A Dec. 12 trial date has been set for Buendia.

The veteran principal at the district is accused of taking kickbacks and bribes from Shy, who was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to repay DPS $2.7 million.

According to the indictment, Buendia accepted $40,275 from Shy from 2001 through January 2015.

Prosecutors allege Buendia also took $3,000 from Shy on Feb. 9, 2015, in the form of a prepaid gift card and “intended to be influenced and rewarded” with a series of payments from Shy. It also states Buendia accepted $2,500 on May 5, 2015, from Shy.

Shy and 12 other DPS defendants took plea deals, sparing themselves public indictments by a grand jury. They received sentences between six months and five years, influenced by how much money they stole from the district in the scheme.

Several of the principals admitted to spending money on themselves for items ranging from clothes to cruises. Several others said they spent the money on DPS students and student trips.

After all 13 co-defendants entered into plea agreements with the government, Buendia was charged in June in a superseding indictment which added the two new counts, federal program bribery, which are punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Buendia’s attorney, Kimberly W. Stout, said her client remains committed to getting her day in court.

“My client is not going to plea. She believes the money was always intend for the students, it was always used for the student and never for her benefit — ever,” Stout said. “The procurement process was impossible. To obtain the goods in a timely a manner was impossible.”

Buendia declined comment in court.

FBI investigators say Shy, owner and operator of Allstate Sales, hatched the scheme by offering cash, checks and gift cards to DPS officials in exchange for billing the district for $5 million in business with his company. Shy did not deliver all the items during the scheme that ran from 2002 through January 2015.

In return for the business, Shy allegedly paid bribes and gave kickbacks totaling $908,518. The scheme deprived DPS students of more than $2.7 million in resources, officials said.

Four of the 12 DPS principals convicted in the case already are serving their prison sentences at a federal facility. They are: Clara Flowers, Ronnie Sims, Ronald Alexander and James Hearn. Shy and the remaining eight are expected to begin their sentences soon.

JChambers@detroitnews.com