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Robert Davis admits he was wrong to embezzle thousands of dollars from the Highland Park School District.

But the former school board president and union activist, recently released from federal prison in Alabama, told The Detroit News that a lack of oversight by school districts makes it far too easy to siphon money from public coffers.

“It’s easy access,” said Davis, 36, who served 10 months for stealing $200,000 from the financially beleaguered district. “In some situations (the embezzlement) might be undetectable.”

The comments of Davis, whom Highland Park’s present emergency manager blames for the district’s financial free fall, come on the heels of an investigation into theft at neighboring Detroit Public Schools.

It has led to the arrest of a dozen DPS principals, an assistant superintendent and a suburban contractor who allegedly bribed them with money and gifts. A number of the principals have agreed to plea deals.

Davis suggests school districts and municipalities require checks and balances that mandate all expenditures be approved publicly by a governing body. He also recommends that all administrators be compelled to give monthly disclosures, under oath, of contractors and individuals with whom they are doing business.

Chris Wigent, the executive director of the 600-member Michigan Association of School Administrators, said he believes school districts’ existing policies are adequate. He said annual state audits, which are conducted in part by professional accounting firms, do a great job of providing transparency about what is going on with school funds, budgets and contractors who do business with school districts.

“It would be a shame to change policies because of the transgressions of a few,” Wigent said, referring to the DPS and Highland Park cases.

A self-styled crusader for justice who filed frequent lawsuits against Gov. Rick Snyder and others, Davis admitted to breaking the law four years ago when federal prosecutors say he took money from a school contractor and funneled it to two separate companies he had set up. The money came from a contractor to pay for a public relations campaign aimed at increasing enrollment in Highland Park schools.

Authorities say Davis spent the money on a pricey car and expensive clothes. At his sentencing, Davis said he took the money “because I was selfish and trying to be the political star on the rise.”

“I allowed my integrity to be compromised,” Davis told The News.

Long struggling with money issues, the Highland Park district has since been dismantled. It now consists of two charter schools for kindergarten through eighth grade, and it has a contract with Detroit Public Schools to educate the district’s high schoolers.

The district had a deficit of $11.3 million in 2012 and was in the midst of losing over half of its students. It went from 3,179 students in 2006 to 1,331 in 2011, according to official numbers from district officials.

Steve Schiller, who has been the district’s emergency manager since February, said the amount Davis took from the district was closer to $446,000, a figure Davis disputes.

Schiller said Davis bears the brunt of the blame for the district being dismantled.

“He caused the people of Highland Park to lose trust in their officials, and that’s a terrible thing,” Schiller said.

Schiller said the district doesn’t have the same concerns about financial improprieties now because it is a much smaller operation. But, he said, school districts should protect themselves against embezzlement by making certain school board members are not involved with the day-to-day operations of schools. He also said districts should choose leaders they can trust and respect.

“You have to be very particular about the leaders you choose,” Schiller said.

‘Humbling’ punishment

Davis was sentenced to 18 months in prison in December 2014. He called his ordeal and prison stay “humbling and life changing.”

He was released under federal supervision in February after serving his term at the Federal Prison Camp on the grounds of Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Davis was jailed with high-profile convicts such as Jesse Jackson Jr., former Enron chairman Jeffrey Skilling, infomercial king Kevin Trudeau and former Washington, D.C., politician Michael Brown, the son of the late U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

Davis said he is a changed man and has realized his mistake. He said he is looking for work but hoping to get his job back as a union official with AFSCME Local 25 to support his 11-year-old son. He said he is going through the legal channels to get an exemption from a federal law that prevents him from serving in a labor or administrative role due to his felony record.

Al Garrett, president of AFSCME Council 25, said Davis is not welcome back to work for the union, saying Davis “will never work for AFSCME again” unless there is a court order forcing the union to hire him back.

“His conduct put the union in a very negative light. He brought disrepute to our organization,” Garrett said. “He simply can’t work for us and be caught up in these scandals.”

Davis says he wants to meet with U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow soon to thank him for helping him realize some of the “silly, irresponsible decisions that I made in a leadership position.”

“I thank him for making me face my failures,” Davis said. “I thank him for putting me in prison. It made me grow up ... mature and not blame others for the bad choices that I made. That time to reflect truly made me grow as a man, made me a better father ... made me a better leader.”

“You were on the way to greatness,” Tarnow told Davis at his trial. “ ‘Selfishness’ is a good word to describe why you are here. ‘Greed’ is another.”

A hard conversation

Rather that risk a lengthy trial and possibly lengthier prison sentence, Davis pleaded guilty in 2012 to the federal charges.

“That was the hardest conversation I had to have,” Davis said, referring to a discussion with his young son about having to go to prison. At his sentencing, Davis broke down while apologizing to his family.

Davis said his political enemies prompted the federal investigation that led to the charges against him. But, Davis said, ultimately, the blame rests with him.

“I can’t be mad because I ultimately gave them ammunition to take me down because of my own unethical conduct,” he said.

Davis will have to repay $198,000. He figures it will take years to do so but says he knows he has to do it.

Davis said he also plans to reapply to Cooley Law School to continue his law studies. He said he wants to practice labor and criminal law.

“I didn’t live a lavish lifestyle,” he said. “It wasn’t me living in a mansion and driving expensive foreign vehicles. I only owned one car. I was able to afford that because of my job.”

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2027

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