Seven charged in voucher scam
False claims by school alleged
By KIMBERLY MILLER, S.V. DÁTE
Wednesday, June 30, 2004, Palm Beach Post
BARTOW - Seven Christian school employees - including a self-styled "God's Messenger" and "Overseer Prophetess" - were charged Tuesday with defrauding taxpayers
out of tens of thousands of dollars in school-voucher money and spending it on such things as a $53,000 SUV, satellite television and tickets to a comedy show.
Polk County sheriff's deputies carried out a pre-dawn raid to arrest Betty Jives Mitchell, 37, the director of Faith Christian Academy in Bartow, as well as five relatives and another woman, culminating a seven-month probe started by Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and carried out by Polk State Attorney Jerry Hill.
According to an affidavit filed by Hill's office to procure arrest warrants, Mitchell and her clan submitted $53,343 in fraudulent claims under the McKay Scholarships program for disabled children, many thousands more for phantom students under the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program, and at least several thousand dollars from corporate tax credit voucher founder John Kirtley's group.
The seven used a complicated money laundering and racketeering scheme - which in a single four-hour period on Dec. 5, 2003, converted more than $70,500 of voucher money first into cashier's checks, then cash - to take advantage of Florida's loosely written school voucher laws, Hill said.
According to the affidavit, the plan included everything from forging parents' signatures to inventing their own accrediting agency to offer legitimacy to the school to doctoring invoices from the T.G. Lee dairy to overbill the state and federal governments for milk deliveries.
And they stole from others, including a textbook publisher and landscapers, the affidavit said. The total, the report said, was more than $200,000.
"I am very, very concerned that the scenario we are discovering here is being repeated in other parts of the state," Hill said Tuesday. "It's a situation ripe for fraud and I hope this is a wake-up call. There needs to be some accountability."
Added Gallagher: "These arrests reinforce the need to have meaningful accountability in all Florida programs, including our school choice programs. I'm going to do everything I can to ensure these programs are successful and tax dollars are appropriately spent."
Despite an investigation that started in December, with Gallagher's office cutting off vouchers to the group in January, the state Department of Education as late as Tuesday afternoon continued to list Faith Christian Academy as an approved McKay school on its Web site.
That link was removed midafternoon after a reporter's inquiry, but a link to the school from the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program, for children from repeatedly failing schools, remained by the close of business.
The school closed its doors on March 4. Education department spokesman MacKay Jimeson said the department's inspector general began a probe into the school in May - five months after Gallagher's investigation began and two months after the school was closed.
Jimeson said he did not know why it took that long for the DOE to investigate, but said Tuesday of the results: "I think this is accountability in action."
Jacob DiPietre, a spokesman for Gov. Jeb Bush, a strong supporter of vouchers, similarly said, "The state will always take a strong stance against anyone who tries to cheat students and taxpayers, which is what happened here with the cooperation from the Department of Financial Services, the Department of Education and the state attorney. Unfortunately there are people who would choose to manipulate the system."
Thirty-seven felony charges
Besides Mitchell, deputies arrested her mother, Jocie Jives, 60; her sister Jeannette Jives Nealy, 36; her brother Willie James Jives, 35; her sister-in-law Margaret Burns, 31; and her nephew Demario Jives, 19. All share a number of addresses in Bartow and nearby Lakeland, along with their various religious groups: Deliverance Worldwide Crusade Ministry, Restoration NOW Ministries Inc., Christian Education Association Inc. and others.
Levy Gail Everett-Davis, 42, was arrested in Tampa. She is listed in the affidavit as Mitchell's secretary, assistant and director of the Cathedral of Faith Christian Academy in Lakeland, which was supposed to replace Faith Christian Academy after it closed in March, the affidavit said.
The seven were charged with 38 counts in all, 37 felonies and one misdemeanor. Mitchell and Nealy were charged with three first-degree felony counts, punishable by as much as 30 years in prison, on racketeering and organized fraud allegations. All seven were held at the Polk County Jail Tuesday.
Tuesday's arrest was not the first for Mitchell, who has a history of writing worthless checks in Polk County and has been charged four times with that offense. Each time she either paid a fine or completed a diversion program, or adjudication was withheld. In 1998, she was charged with one felony count of obtaining property with a bad check when she gave Bartow Ford a worthless check for $3,145.55.
Nealy, also known as Jeannette Simmons, was director of Bartow's Learning Academy Child Care Center in April 2002, when a 3-month-old baby died in his crib. He was one of at least 22 children, including three other infants, being cared for by only two adults.
The center was exempt from state regulations that would have required more workers because of its religious affiliation and its accreditation through the Early Childhood Christian Education Association, which is run by Mitchell.
The center was closed within days of the death, and no criminal charges were filed. Nor was the day-care center mentioned in the criminal charges filed Tuesday.
Expensive home, vehicles
Property records and the arrest affidavit show that Mitchell and her family enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. Mitchell calls herself a doctor, although investigators could find no evidence of such a degree. She also says she is a pastor and CEO of several religious organizations, according to a biography found by investigators titled Portrait of God's Messenger . . . Overseer Prophetess, Dr. Betty J. Mitchell.
In August, Mitchell put down $35,000 on a $53,000 2003 Hummer. In December, she purchased a $250,000 brick home on a shady private drive north of downtown Bartow. On the loan application for the house, which has a gated circular driveway, a two-car garage and a pool, Mitchell claimed she made a monthly salary of $10,600 from Faith Christian Academy. A Lexus LS400 parked in the driveway Tuesday is registered to Nealy.
While Mitchell and her family enjoyed one of the more expensive homes in Bartow, students at Faith Christian Academy attended a school run on a less extravagant budget.
School enrollment inflated
Housed in a modest office on downtown Bartow's Main Street - a small strip dotted with bail bondsmen, antique stores and boarded-up shops - the school had been at the location for more than a year, according to the landlord, but was vacated in March when Mitchell said she no longer had money to run it.
The small building usually held about 50 students, the owner said, adding that it was unlikely it could have accommodated the 110 that Mitchell reported to the state.
According to the affidavit, teachers estimated the enrollment was 80 to 87 students and complained that payroll checks often bounced and that there were not enough textbooks for the students.
The school received $52,343 in McKay voucher payments - in per-student payments ranging from $1,240 to $7,736 - for 23 students after those students had left the school, the affidavit said.
The lowest tuition the school charged was $11,300 per student, of which $60 was to be for uniforms, $400 for instruction materials and $1,200 for tutoring and computer lab, but investigators found no computers, former teachers said there never was tutoring and parents said they provided uniforms, the affidavit said.
Of the state's three voucher programs, the McKay voucher program is the only one that allows schools to charge parents more for tuition than the voucher amount.
Thirty-seven Felony Charges Filed in School Voucher Scandal
The integrity of the Florida school voucher program continues to be called into question
as a recently-filed affidavit charges seven Christian school employees with defrauding tens of thousands of tax dollars in school voucher funds, reports the Palm Beach Post. Betty Jives Mitchell, the director of Faith Christian Academy in Polk County, Florida, was the main target of the seven-month probe that ended in the charges.
Mitchell's intricate scheme involved siphoning money from the school by converting state vouchers to cashier's checks and then to cash. Also according to the affidavit, the plan involved means such as circumventing parents' signatures, inventing an accrediting agency for the school, and overbilling the state and federal governments.
While the school tuition itemized services such as uniforms, instruction material, and computer technology, teachers and parents say that such materials were never provided. The over-$200,000 stolen funds were traced to purchases including a $53,000 Hummer and a house on a gated property. "I'm very, very concerned that the scenario we are discovering here is being repeated in other parts of the state," said Polk State Attorney Jerry Hill, adding, "It's a situation ripe for fraud and I hope this is a wake up call."
More on voucher program abuse and mismanagement in Florida:
Florida Vouchers Under Fire
Outcry from all sides over investigations and mismanagement
When it comes to the education of Florida children, Governor Jeb Bush's administration has been playing political games and subjecting the state to risky experiments. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost for the Governor and his pro-voucher allies. A new PFAW report, Dereliction of Duty, explores the mismanagement and failed policies under Governor Bush and Education Commissioner Jim Horne.
Only a few years into the life of the Republican-backed Florida voucher programs and the state's Department of Education is scrambling for cover. In mid-December, Education Commissioner Jim Horne announced that 100 private and religious schools are being suspended and losing their funding until they agree to comply with requirements to prove they are not breaking state laws. As of Dec 23, Horne had published a list of 50 schools that are now officially on probation.
The bottom line is that the hastily erected programs have no system for oversight built-in: not for ensuring quality of education, not for guaranteeing child safety, nor for monitoring the use of state money. Currently the three voucher programs are the subject of five investigations – one criminal – to discover whether private schools have been abusing public funds.
One recent St Petersburg Times columnist noted that "there's not even the most basic match-up between dollars in and dollars out, to verify where the money is going, whether students are getting it, whether schools are doing what they're supposed to." And Robert Metty, the former director of scholarship programs for the Department of Education's Choice Office, explains: "There's $50 million out there, and I don't know where it's gone. I can't name a student. I can't name a school. I can't name a student in a school."
Considering the controversy surrounding voucher programs – especially due to the lack of accountability in private and religious schools – one would assume the state would have carefully tracked the funds devoted to the projects and the improvement of the students within them. But no such system was put into place.
In fact, state CFO Tom Gallagher faulted the Department of Education for misspending and mismanagement in a critical report; not only were some families receiving tax-credit vouchers from two different programs, but several private schools were receiving and spending scholarship checks for students who were attending public schools.
Florida's public schools, in contrast, follow a rigorous testing and accountability schedule and those schools face serious consequences for performing below minimum standard. Every tax dollar is carefully apportioned and reported.
"Our state is as far out there as any state in the country in what I believe is a reckless experiment," said U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, a Tampa Democrat. "You're going to be hearing a lot more about Florida. The facts speak for themselves."
Palm Beach Post:Special Reports: Follow Post coverage of school voucher program abuse in Florida
12/23/03: Column: Why state vouchers discriminate
12/21/03: Editorial: Vouchers beyond repair
12/17/03: 100 private voucher schools suspended
12/12/03: Voucher audit triggers crime probes
St Petersburg Times:
12/19/03: Legislature plays fast and loose with the people's voucher money
PFAW: "Choice" Comes With a Blindfold in FloridaJeopardizing a Legacy: A Closer Look at IDEA and Florida's Disability VouchersUnaccountable by Design: Corporate Tuition Tax Credit Schemes Drain Millions from States
Gallagher's Audit: http://www.fldfs.com/aadir