Defense: Ex-DPS principal worked in a broken system

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Lawyers for a former Detroit Public School principal told a jury Tuesday their client did accept more than $40,000 in gift cards and cash from a school vendor.

But the government will never prove that Josette Buendia, a former principal at Bennett Elementary School, acted corruptly or was influenced when she took the cash and cards from businessman Norman Shy.

“The evidence will show Josette Buendia spent well over $40,000 on students and staff and never took a thing for herself,” defense attorney Kim Stout told the federal jury of six men and eight women. “You will see this was a creative way to get goods and services from a broken system called Detroit Public School.”

Buendia, 51, is charged with bribery and conspiracy in a $2.7 million scheme uncovered by the FBI at the beleaguered school district.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Frances Carlson told the jury that Buendia used and abused the authority placed in her by DPS when she signed off on fraudulent invoices that said Shy delivered all the goods promised to her southwest Detroit school.

In exchange for her signatures on invoices, Shy paid Buendia $41,755 in bribes and kickbacks for more than a decade, Carlson said.

Buendia admitted to FBI agents inside her home that she took the gift cards and cash, saying she knew it was serious lapse in judgment, Carlson said.

Prosecutors recorded conversations Shy had with Buendia, including one in which Buendia allegedly took $3,000 in gift cards.

Carlson told the jury those credit cards were from the FBI and tracked purchases made on them, including three 90-minute massages, nail salon services and fast food.

Carlson also played a recorded phone conversation between Buendia and Shy in which Buendia asked for the balance of the gift cards and cash coming to her and then said “darn” when the amount was less than she had hoped.

Prosecutors called four witnesses on Tuesday, including two people who worked for Buendia at Bennett Elementary who said Buendia ordered them to mark deliveries as received without checking packages to determine if all the items were included.

Testimony in the case is set to resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh ruled that three former DPS principals convicted of bribery in the scheme would not be allowed to testify for the government in Buendia’s trial.

Steeh said the testimony of Gerlma Johnson, James Hearn and Tia’Von Moore-Patton would be prejudicial and not allowed.

On Monday, the government announced it would not be calling Shy as a witness in the case but would instead use the three former principals to testify on ledgers and files Shy kept of all 13 DPS officials he entered into the scheme with, including Buendia.

Buendia, a former principal at Bennett Elementary, is charged with conspiracy and bribery, a 10-year felony.

She denies the allegations.

Shy admitted he kept the records as part of the scheme in which he paid 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, depriving students of $2.7 million in goods.

Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Buckley said on Monday he would not call Shy because the government was not interested in offering him a reduced sentence in exchange for his potential cooperation in the case.

“He tipped off certain of his favorite principals” in the case, Buckley told Steeh on Monday, adding the defense was able to call Shy if it wanted to.

On Tuesday, Buckley said he remained confident in his case against Buendia.

Buendia, who was indicted in June, rejected a plea deal by prosecutors that would have cut her prison time for helping the government with its criminal case. Twelve other DPS officials and Shy were charged in the case. All pleaded guilty and are serving prison time in the case. They received sentences between six months and five years, influenced by how much money they stole from the district in the scheme.

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. They also allege Buendia accepted $2,500 on May 5, 2015, from Shy.

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.

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.

In return for the business, Shy allegedly paid bribes and gave kickbacks totaling $908,518, officials said.