Jury finds ex-DPS principal guilty in bribery trial

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Detroit — A jury in a federal bribery trial Friday found a former Detroit Public Schools principal guilty of accepting more than $40,000 in bribes and kickbacks from an ex-vendor.

The jury deliberated for a couple of hours before reaching a guilty verdict for Josette Buendia, a former principal at Bennett Elementary School. Her trial lasted five days.

The jury of eight woman and four men said she was guilty the three counts she was charged with: one conspiracy charge and two bribery charges.

“We’re just really pleased,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Buckley after the verdict was rendered. “This trial was the conclusion of a lengthy investigation. Justice was done.”

“This principal accepted bribes in exchange for shortchanging the school district,” U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade in a statement Friday. “Regardless of what she did with the money, Detroit Public Schools and the students paid the price.”

Buendia’s attorney, Kim Stout, said she was disappointed with the jury’s decision.

“I’m saddened and disappointed,” she said outside of the courtroom. “I always respect a jury’s verdict, but I’m saddened they didn’t get the whole picture.”

U.S. District Judge George Steeh scheduled Buendia, 51, of Garden City, to be sentenced on April 6. Buendia, who remains free on bond, faces up to 10 years in prison, officials said.

Buendia was one of 13 DPS administrators charged in the public corruption case orchestrated by Norman Shy, an ex-vendor for the district.

FBI investigators said Shy, owner and operator of Allstate Sales, hatched a scheme to offer cash, checks and gift cards to DPS officials in exchange for billing the district for $5 million in business with his company.

Twelve other DPS officials and Shy pleaded guilty 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.

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

Before the jury began deliberations, Buckley and Stout made their final arguments earlier Friday.

“This case is about greed, this case is about corruption and this case is about the abuse of power,” Buckley said. “The evidence of this case has proven the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Stout told the jury her client is a victim of DPS’ broken system and she used the money from Shy for her students and teachers.

“We know she bought things for the school. She paid for field trips. She paid for repairs at the school,” she said. “She reimbursed herself for what she spent. She doesn’t deny it.”

Buckley told jurors the fact Buendia’s students live in poverty and the school was in poor condition only makes her crime more “heinous.”

“You heard about the disgusting conditions at the school, the disadvantaged kids,” he said. “That’s what makes her acts more despicable. She knows how the kids at her school suffer.”