Prosecutors who oversaw a grand jury review that resulted in the removal of Broward School Board members are re-examining the school district.
The Attorney General’s Office last month issued a subpoena to Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley requesting emails and text messages from four county administrators regarding a recent school board action that banned the use of federal money for approved employee bonuses.
The office is also seeking correspondence regarding a potential whistleblower. It is unclear whether there is a connection between the whistleblower issue and the agenda item of the school board.
Administrators listed are: Judith Marte, Deputy Superintendent of Operations; Erum Motiwala, Chief Financial Officer; Valerie Wanza, Smiley’s chief of staff; and Oleg Gorokhovsky, director of accounting and financial reporting.
The Office of Statewide Prosecution is the same agency that led a three-year, statewide grand jury investigation commissioned in 2019 by Governor Ron DeSantis to assess safety issues at schools in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. The grand jury ultimately focused most of its attention on Broward’s poor execution of an $800 million voter-approved safety, technology and school renovation bond loan.
When the grand jury ended its term in spring 2021, it indicted three former county executives, including then-Superintendent Robert Runcie, for perjury. A judge recently dismissed Runcie’s case, citing a jurisdictional issue, though the state is appealing. The long-delayed grand jury report was released in 2022 and led DeSantis to suspend and replace four board members who supported Runcie.
The May 9 subpoena, obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, appears to be breaking new ground, including the school district’s use of federal funding. The national prosecutor’s office asked for emails and Microsoft Teams messages, including attachments, as well as text messages on certain topics to present the four current administrators from March 1, 2023.
The files had to be with the government agency by May 17, according to the subpoena.
The attorney general’s office declined to answer questions about the subpoena.
“As this investigation is ongoing, we are unable to comment,” Kylie Mason, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, told the Sun Sentinel.
Those named in the subpoena could not be reached by the Sun Sentinel or declined to comment.
“No individual employee(s) have been served a subpoena,” school district spokesman John Sullivan said in a statement. “The district (through Dr. Smiley) got the subpoena and followed instructions. The district is not concerned about the subpoena and is willing to fully cooperate with the prosecutor.”
The subpoena offered potential leads for the state’s investigation by asking for district notices related to these specific search terms:
Coker, the district’s procurement and storage services director, declined to comment when reached by the Sun Sentinel. According to court documents, she served as a witness for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the grand jury on three cases that resulted in arrests: Runcie, former General Counsel Barbara Myrick, and former Chief Information Officer Tony Hunter.
A common problem in all three cases was a dubious $17 million classroom technology contract where a friend of Hunter’s was a supplier. FDLE reviewed the purchase as a result of a South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation.
Runcie and Myrick both contacted Coker about the purchasing method used to secure the technology contract as Runcie prepared to testify before the grand jury in the spring of 2021, and Coker shared this information with an FDLE agent, so according to court documents. Prosecutors alleged that Runcie had lied about preparation by Coker, resulting in a perjury charge, while alleging that Myrick had illegally disclosed confidential grand jury information.
The dismissal of Runcie’s case is now in an appeals court and the other two cases are still pending in circuit court. Myrick has pleaded not guilty, as has Hunter, who has been charged with unlawful compensation by a government official.
The second search term on the subpoena, the F-2 agenda item, refers to a request by Smiley and Marte at a May 9 meeting to use $8.2 million in federal money previously allocated for heating and air conditioning upgrades to to pay for employee bonuses.
The money used was US Rescue Plan grant dollars, which the federal government allocated to help districts recover from COVID-19.
Most of the bonuses were $1,000 each and were given to employees such as teacher assistants, secretaries, bus drivers, and maintenance and cafeteria workers.
Federal law allows these COVID relief dollars to be used for one-time bonuses, Marte told the school board on May 9.
“The money is very, very flexible,” Marte told the board.
But Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, chair of the district’s Facilities Task Force, disturbed Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, who was running out of heating and air conditioning funds. She asked the board members to vote down the point.
“I don’t think any of you would have been on board with scaling back HVAC projects that contribute to better air quality,” Lynch-Walsh said at the meeting.
But Marte told the board that heating and air conditioning projects will not be scaled back. Tax revenues increased this year due to higher property values, so she could use money in capital reserves to replace the money taken out of federal funds for employee bonuses.
Lynch-Walsh said it was a bad move. Even as capital reserves increase, there is still not enough money to cover all of the district’s maintenance needs, she said. She described the district’s approach as “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
But board members still unanimously supported the change.
“This to me is an example of the talent we have in Broward County,” said board member Allen Zeman. “It is rare for a school system to know all those dials and where to find the money. … This is by far a wise choice in terms of funding source.”
As for the third search item on the subpoena, “whistleblower,” it is not known who or what that refers to.