Figure in 2 scandals sentenced to 1 day in prison

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit – A corrupt school vendor convicted in a corruption scandal who later helped federal prosecutors bag state Sen. Bert Johnson in a theft case was sentenced Thursday to one day in federal custody and one year in a halfway house before probation.

Glynis Thornton, 55, of West Bloomfield, is the last figure in a widespread corruption scandal involving the Education Achievement Authority, a district created to improve the academic performance of students in the state’s lowest performing schools. The scandal led to more than 12 convictions, including Kenyetta Wilbourn Snapp, the Maserati-driving, baseball-bat wielding former principal of Mumford and Denby high schools.

Thornton, an after-school tutoring vendor, pleaded guilty two years ago, admitting she paid $58,050 in kickbacks to Snapp in exchange for preferential treatment for her company. Her sentencing was delayed repeatedly after she cooperated in a separate investigation involving Johnson, who recently struck a plea deal and is awaiting sentencing.

In a court filing, prosecutors urged U.S. District Judge David Lawson to sentence Thornton to 15 months in prison and pay restitution because she provided substantial assistance in the Johnson case. 

“Thornton’s fraud on the EAA, the taxpayers, and the schoolchildren of Detroit was a very serious offense,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Buckley wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Instead, Lawson sentenced Thornton to one day in federal custody, which she already served, plus one year in a halfway house correction center and three years on supervised probation. She also was ordered to pay $58,050 in restitution to the EAA. He said the sentence was taking into consideration her chronic medical condition and her previously clean record.

"Pay to play has plagued DPS for years and the victims of corruption are not only taxpayers but the students themselves," Lawson said. "You have touched the lives of a number of people, who have sent letters to the court; however, this happened over one year with multiple payouts."

Thornton, whose company, Making a Difference Everyday (“M.A.D.E.”) provided after-school tutoring services at Mumford and Denby high schools, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery.

Prosecutors say she conspired with Wilbourn Snapp and a third woman, employee Paulette Horton, to take school funds and enrich herself and laundered money in the process.

"It's been 41 months that I have suffered through this," Thornton said through tears Thursday. "It's not who I am, how I was raised and I just lost sight of myself and got caught up in pay-to-play"

Thornton said she was embarrassed for her 80-year-old mother and had time to reflect on her actions.

"This has been like death and torture," she said. "I've beaten myself up about this so much, it has affected my health. I wish I could put your hand on my heart because you wouldn't be able to carry how heavy it is."

According to the grand jury indictment, Snapp, as principal as Mumford and Denby in 2012-14, 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, rather than paying Snapp directly. Horton, who was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison, would then deposit and withdraw the money and give it to Snapp, according to the indictment.

“Thornton paid kickbacks to Snapp, a public official, who was entrusted to serve the EAA honestly, with the best interests of the school and its students in mind,” Buckley wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “The spectacle of a school principal corruptly using her position for her own financial benefit does untold damage to the faith of our citizens in the education being provided to their children.”

After being ensnared in the schools scandal, Thornton started cooperating with federal investigators in a case against Johnson, the state senator.

Johnson added Thornton to his Senate payroll as a “ghost employee,” paying her for a no-show job so he could repay a loan, according to prosecutors.

Johnson stole more than $23,000 from taxpayers between March 2014 and January 2015, according to prosecutors. During the investigation, Thornton secretly recorded a conversation with Johnson at his home in November 2015, prosecutors said. He resigned as senator and pleaded guilty last month.

Thornton's defense attorney, Gerald Evelyn, spoke on her behalf, saying she is "virtually no risk to re-offend."

"She did fall into the pay-to-play culture in DPS and quickly realized the wrongdoing," Evelyn said during sentencing. "She knew she couldn't reach back but did everything she could to reach forward and fix it. She was also the cornerstone of this government case."

Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor, said the sentence is a substantial reduction compared with the others involved.

"We haven't seen many light sentences lately and this could be sending a message of the benefits of cooperation," said Henning, a former federal prosecutor. "She gave them something they weren't expecting to find. It's not an unusual sentence, it's a combination."

Sarah Rahal contributed.

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