FBI takes BISD computer, talks with staff
Continuing its ongoing investigation into allegations of wrongdoing related to a $388.6 million bond initiative passed by voters in 2007, two agents with the FBI and a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice for the Eastern District of Texas were at the Beaumont Independent School District administration building this week to retrieve a computer for FBI analysis, The Examiner has confirmed. Additionally, several staff members have been questioned by federal authorities.
Sources at the U.S. Department of Justice said authorities have reviewed hundreds of documents from the district and that BISD officials have been cooperating with the ongoing investigation, which was made public in December 2010 with the FBI raids at the home and business of Calvin Walker of Walker’s Electric Company.
Walker began drawing scrutiny in October 2009 when The Examiner first revealed the FBI had met with local businessman Duwayne Hermann, owner of D&H Electrical Services. Hermann confirmed for The Examiner that he went to the FBI with documentation suggesting Walker was overcharging on work being done for BISD.
At the time, Hermann focused on the cost of installing utilities at the temporary site used to house the students from Regina-Howell Elementary that is now the temporary site for students from Sallie Curtis Elementary.
“That is a $300,000 job at the most, and that is being generous,” Hermann said of the Regina-Howell job in 2009. “I just don’t understand. You know what they say – if it looks bad and it smells bad … you know. I have my suspicions.”
According to records from BISD, Walker was paid more than $1.5 million for the job.
The latest event occurred at 1:51 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 9, when FBI Special Agents Tim Brewer and Deanna Stephens were observed exiting the administration building with Asst. U.S. Attorney Robert Rawls. Brewer and Rawls were carrying a large computer that was later discovered to have belonged to a previous employee of the district. The trio placed the computer into a gold-colored Chevrolet Equinox before leaving.
Rawls downplayed the taking of the computer, saying it was nothing major, just that it had been used by a previous employee and had been in storage.
“There is really nothing to it,” Rawls told the newspaper. “It was an old computer that belonged to a retired employee and we could not check it. Beyond that they have been very cooperative. We just did not have capability of pulling information off of that device. It was not hooked up and it was suggested that we take it and let the FBI look at it.”
Rawls said it is his understanding the information on the computer dates back to 2005.
When asked about the computer, Superintendent Carrol Thomas said, “I don’t know anything about that.”
According to BISD spokesperson Jessie Haynes, this is not the first time the FBI has been to the administration building seeking information regarding billing issues and other matters related to the $388.6 million bond program.
“I have received several calls asking why or what the FBI was doing at the administration building; you probably know as much as I do,” Haynes said.
On Wednesday, Feb. 16, Haynes did respond to The Examiner’s request for information by sending a written statement via e-mail. The following statement is provided below exactly as it was taken from Haynes’ e-mail: “Several weeks ago, BISD responded the requests by several of you concerning various FBI actions. The bottom line was and remains that BISD would assist the Department of Justice in any way possible to help facilitate them in finding whatever it is they are seeking. At that time and again on today, I suggest that you contact the Department of Justice with any questions you may have about their work. At this time, BISD is not commenting on this matter.”
A BISD source said the computer might contain information that would show how the district has changed its purchasing and payments systems. Since 2007, several BISD officials involved with business side of the district have retired, including Terry Ingram, the former assistant superintendent for administration and operations; Jane Kingsley, the former chief financial officer; and Patty Attaway, the former purchasing agent. The Examiner has confirmed that these and numerous other current and former BISD employees have spoken with the FBI.
Although the FBI would not comment on their investigation or the direction it was headed, the BISD source said it is their understanding the feds have asked about issues outside the bond, including possible hurricane-related insurance claims and discrepancies involving money from federal Title 1 programs.
The head of the Title 1 program for BISD, Cathy Chavis, was recently questioned by federal officials and was accompanied during that event by BISD’s attorney Melody Chappell and spokesperson Haynes. Additionally, George Luke, who is over the maintenance department, was also questioned by federal authorities with Chappell being present. Afterwards, Thomas told staff members that Chappell would accompany any BISD employee being sought for questioning by federal officials. The cost of her services – about $200 per hour – is being picked up by the district at taxpayers’ expense.
Chappell was also present the day that the FBI took the computer from the district this past week but denied there was anything going on.
When specifically questioned about the FBI’s presence at the district, she declined comment.
An e-mail sent to Chappell in an effort to obtain comments for this article went unanswered.