Prosecutors set out to prove extent of BISD administrator’s criminality

Prosecutors set out to prove extent  of BISD administrator’s criminality

It’s come down to this. Recorded phone calls, video admissions, incriminating e-mails, forged checks, and insight from confidants turned informants …

Former Beaumont Independent School District assistant superintendent and Central High School principal Patricia Adams Collins Lambert is facing damning evidence in court this week that showcases the six-plus years she used funds meant to support the student body she oversaw as her own personal slush fund. 

Lambert already pleaded guilty to theft from programs receiving federal funding and conspiracy at the end of 2015, but instead of taking the 40 months plea deal offered by prosecutors, Lambert is forcing a hearing to contest the exact amount she stole while at BISD in hopes of a reduced sentence.

Federal prosecutors Joe Batte and Chris Tortorice are determined to see the ousted educator sentenced to every day she has coming to her. In the first three days of testimony, the prosecutorial team produced witness after witness to confirm what it seems everyone already knew: Any cash taken in at Central High was expended at Lambert’s sole discretion. And as witness after witness revealed, oftentimes Lambert’s discretional spending had nothing to do with student enhancement.

Adrian Chretien was president of the Central High booster club prior to Lambert’s arrival as the campus principal. As soon as Lambert arrived, Chretien said, there were problems.

“When Lambert got there, we worked maybe one or two games – and we were done.

“The first time she called me, the band needed a bus,” Chretien said, adding that the band had its own booster club account for such things. “She advised that the band needed money, and we were the only ones that had the money.” So, Chretien gave it to her. 

“Then she called wanting money for T-shirts and food for teachers,” Chretien continued. “We decided since she was a new principal coming in we would go ahead and give it to her.”

The shirts and food totaled approximately $1,500, she said. But, that wasn’t all Lambert wanted. The next call was for personal items – “and I immediately told her no,” Chretien said.

That’s when things got ugly.

“(Lambert) said they were having a meeting and it would be in my best interest to be there,” Chretien said, adding that she did not go since she had heard rumblings that Lambert was talking bad about the booster club president in mixed company. “She was going to do what she was going to do anyway.”

After that meeting, Chretien said, “She told me I had been voted out.” Who voted? No one could say. Still, Chretien said, Lambert’s next words came as little surprise: “Bring me my money.”

Lambert would not get any money raised by the booster club under Chretien’s control, however. Immediately after learning of Lambert’s intent, Chretien made the rounds to athletic coaches and student sponsors to see what needed to be purchased with the booster club’s remaining funds. What was left for Lambert? Nothing.

“I sent Mrs. Lambert a zero balance,” Chretien said. “She wasn’t getting it – it was going to the students.”

Those associated with the booster club after Chretien’s departure did not keep such a close eye on the funds, they said. Dr. Lori Rochelle, former Central High student activities director and one-time named booster club vice president, said she didn’t even know she had an official position in the club and knew little about what was expected of expenditures related to the account.

“We didn’t know it was wrong,” Rochelle said as to why she would accept money from the athletic booster club account to attend out-of-state conferences such as the annual meeting of the National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE) - funds she said were bequeathed to her by Lambert. “We thought we could use it for professional development.”

Meals, travel, hotels, and registration – all covered with BISD funds and what was termed a booster club “scholarship.” And Rochelle wasn’t the only adult to receive paid vacation money for NABSE trips – Lambert’s grown children, Janell Collins Pollingue and Jerrod Collins, also attended on Central High booster club funds, although neither worked at the campus. The rationale, as explained, was that since the two Lambert offspring were members of the national organization it was ok.

In a recorded phone call between Lambert and Rochelle, Lambert explained that, “The booster club voted to pay them to go to NABSE.”

Funds in the booster club account were raised at athletic events, through candy sales, and various cash sales at the campus, Rochelle said. Rochelle said she worked hard to secure the funds, but never really paid attention to where the money was going.

Laptops, iPads, iPods, cell phones, furniture, orange soda and gummy bears were just a few of the things those funds were purchasing.

Personal expenditures

Aaron Lewallen, a Beaumont Police Department detective assigned to the Joint Task Force, said when investigators were examining booster club expenditures at Fry’s electronic store, “We thought it was strange purchases were being made outside the community.” Additionally, it was also strange to see what was actually purchased – laptop computers, As Seen On TV merchandise, and assorted goodies.

One big ticket purchase totaling $2,223.76 from a Fry’s in Las Vegas encompassed a $1,499.99 laptop, a rolling case for the new equipment, an As Seen On TV Wonder Hanger, a hair straightener, a hair curling iron, and a toothbrush.

And, that was just one trip to Fry’s – Lewallen detailed about a couple dozen others. There was a $1,300 purchase that included portable gaming devices, a small TV, headphones, and a Leapster child’s game. Then there was more than $2,200 spent on cameras, a karaoke machine, an iPod, iPhone, and more portable gaming devices, with that booty sent to an address near Houston belonging to Lambert’s son, Brian Collins. More than $1,100 worth of laptops and assorted accessories (and more As Seen On TV merchandise) was also purchased with booster club funds and sent to Collins’ home, as was a separate purchase for a desk. Nearly $2,000 was spent on another booster club sponsored shopping spree that netted computers, computer software, Norton 360, a Yoshi blade knife and As Seen On TV “Your Baby Can Read.” According to the note on the booster club check used to fund the “Your Baby Can Read” excursion, the purchased items were to be used for “Project Graduation.” Also noted as Project Graduation purchases, specifically for the sleepover, was a $7,576.28 Best Buy purchase of cameras, laptops, a Bose stereo system, Napster, and a microwave.

“I wouldn’t imagine a microwave being given away at a sleepover,” Lewallen concluded.

Tens of thousands of dollars was attributed to spending from the booster club account, but that wasn’t the only student money Lambert was dipping into.

Also under Lambert’s control was the student activities fund. From that, tens of thousands more was spent on things like computers and monitors, honeybuns, shrimp and chicken wings, gift cards, iPods, iPads, MacBooks, grill tools, Abreva and Centrum Silver, food storage containers, crock pots, Disney sets, TVs, magazines, perfume, a slow cooker, DVDs, a Whitney Houston CD, cheesecake, furniture, phones and phone bills, a $731 cake, USB drives and desktop computers – and that’s just a sampling. And not everything purchased could be tracked.

“As we went through the boxes, there were several that were missing,” Lewallen said.

Sharon George, Central High’s former bookkeeper and now receptionist, said she threw away all the booster club documents prior to federal agents knocking on her door. All that federal investigators had to go on now were subpoenaed documents from businesses and banking institutions.

“I asked Mrs. Lambert if I could get rid of it and she said yes,” she said. “I had stuff piling up and no one ever went through it or checked it.”

All that was left, according to George, were receipts gathered after 2013.

Examiner investigations

By June 2013, Lambert had already been exposed in The Examiner as possessing a criminal record for extorting public funds from her last job in the New Orleans school district, accused by her employees of being the leader of a massive cheating epidemic and campaign of retaliation against those who bucked her sovereignty at Central High, and had her stellar credentials from Loyola and Harvard universities debunked as fairytale. 

Soon after taking over Central High, Lambert opted to stray away from the campus’ longstanding practices of processing outside printing work through the local Kinko’s. The new vendor of choice was none other than Houston-based Designergy, owned and operated by her son, Brian Collins, via a “printing” business he ran with no equipment from his apartment bedroom. Since Collins was first awarded vendor status in 2007-08, he has reportedly billed the district more than $300,000 for services rendered. In just six months alone, BISD invoices show Collins billed the district in excess of $60,000.

In a conversation with Deidra, Collins’ ex-wife, she said she was unsure how much Collins routinely billed BISD and his mom’s school, but roughly $56,000 every six months “sounded about right.”

And Designergy wasn’t the only Brian Collins enterprise profiting to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars annually from BISD taxpayers. Collins-owned Printica garnered over $50,000 from BISD payouts in just six months of 2011. In fact, at least one other vendor cashing in BISD-funded checks connected to Lambert’s grown son out of Houston said they were ordered by Collins to forward kickbacks to an undisclosed Chase bank account.

Joel Harris of Exhibit Technologies in Pearland said that on at least one occasion, he acquired Apple iPads for Collins to ship to BISD.

“I thought it was odd,” he said, but performed the task as requested. Joel said Exhibit Technologies has also performed printing work directly for BISD, as evidenced by invoices to BISD for $9,968 in January 2013, and $8,291 charged to BISD in 2012.

Joel said the 2012 exchange with BISD employee Patricia Lambert was odd as he and his  brother were being asked to serve as a go-between for electronic purchases, and it only got odder when Collins asked that they wire in excess of $6,000 from that invoice total to a bank account.

“At first, it was two separate invoices, then I was asked to combine the two and re-state what work was performed,” he said. According to Joel, the initial work order was for TAKS test review material and rose cutting program keepsake books. The order ultimately read to reflect “graduation progras (sp), graduation posters, (and) senior honors booklets.”

Total invoices from Exhibit Technologies from 2012 exceeded $38,000.

Joel said he was unaware that Collins also billed for the same products in the same time frame, and added that he was willing to cooperate with any investigation launched into the possibility of double-billing. After doing some research, Joel said, he was more worried about retaliation from Lambert than from law enforcement.

“I don’t really want to be involved,” he said.

And Joel Harris was not involved when federal prosecutors called Lambert into account – but his brother Mike Harris was.

On the witness stand Wednesday, Feb. 24, Mike described his affiliation with Collins in detail – recounting his brother’s words to this newspaper, for the most part.

According to Mike, everything Collins shipped to BISD was work done by VCI or through Exhibit Technologies. He also confirmed he worked directly with Lambert on occasion, and even doctored invoices under her direction – and shipped much of the products, including the nearly $10,000 shipment of iPads, to Lambert’s home.

“At the time I really didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “Now, I do.”

From campus to campus

Sharon George, still employed at Central High as the campus receptionist, was brought to the high school by Lambert in 2006. George had worked for Lambert before then as well, serving as the attendance clerk while at French Elementary School. Although she held no degree or certification, George was handpicked to accompany Lambert to her new post – even though Lambert didn’t have a position open for her at the time.

“Then I became the bookkeeper,” George said. “I was monitoring the booster club files, the student activity accounts, and the sponsors. …

“The cash was coming from everywhere.”

According to George, student activity funds were entrusted to her by “40-50 different organizations,” including the drill team, ROTC, various athletic groups, cheerleaders, drill team members, etc.

But the booster money, she said, “did not belong to BISD.” From that, George said she had no problem paying “volunteer” employees who worked at football games – and she even paid herself $1,000 from the booster club account for her service in overseeing the monies.

Laura Klock, who was tasked with auditing insurance, worker’s compensation, student activity funds and fixed assets at BISD, said she noted many deficiencies in Central High bookkeeping over the years, but there was little she could do to correct the issues.

“Mrs. Lambert vacated the last person from the position,” Klock said, adding that was when Lambert put George in that spot. According to Klock, the former bookkeeper was not competent in the post – and neither was her replacement.

“I trained her several times,” Klock said of George. “She didn’t seem to grasp the paperwork involved.”

Klock said George did not timely enter data, had no knowledge of the accounting program, and input flawed journal entries. “I reported it to the external auditor at the time,” Klock said.

She also went to George’s superiors, including Lambert and then superintendent Carrol Thomas. Lambert said she would personally pay for a professional to balance the books for George, and Thomas agreed that George would stay put since being the bookkeeper at Central High was George’s “identity.”

Nothing ever came of Klock’s complaints, she said, even though an audit of Central High’s student activity funds determined money needed to be paid back to BISD for unapproved expenditures.

“I’m not sure anyone ever saw that through,” Klock said.

It has now been revealed Lambert used booster club money to pay the professional bookkeeper to fix George’s mistakes.

And money was indeed flowing around Central High – at least for the teachers in Lambert’s favor. “Leadership” luncheons, gifts, T-shirts, parties, and iPads were showered on educators on campus, paid for with student money.

“We thought she was just being generous,” Rochelle said.

Even after Lambert left Central High, George said she still forwarded booster club money to the ex-principal.

“She said we had a bill we needed to pay – and that she needed the money to pay it,” George said of the first instance, which elicited a $2,000 cash withdrawal from the booster club account. Multiple cash and check withdrawals followed, all OK’ed by new principal O. Lorenzo Carr.

“I didn’t feel right doing it,” she said.

When asked by Lambert’s attorney about her own potentially criminal earnings, George balked about the $1,000 she “earned” for working for the booster club, but did admit she was wrong to pay her own personal bills from the account – which she also admits to doing.

“That was a mistake,” she said, “and I took full responsibility for that.”

While Timothy Chargois was still superintendent at BISD before the Texas Education Agency had him and the entire Board of Trustees replaced due to fiscal mismanagement, George said she went to him and demanded another position as she wasn’t going down for what was going on at Central High.

“I took the fall for her one time before,” George said, “and I’m not going to do it again.

“I didn’t feel like I was responsible for what I didn’t do.”

What she didn’t do, according to testimony elicited by prosecutors, was keep track of the money she was in charge of auditing. In fact, nearly all of the checks written on the booster club account and student activity account contained George’s signature – although Lambert was forging George’s name most of the time, she said.

FBI special agent Chris Day said he was brought in after investigators talked to Sharon George.

“It became evident we needed her to confront Lambert,” he said. So while the wiretap rolled, George called her former boss.

In a audiotape played in the courtroom, George told Lambert she had been questioned by federal agents.

“What did you tell them? What did they tell you? How long were you there?” Lambert seemed worried about what exchange went down outside her company. She also seemed worried about the paper trail that could be dug up by enterprising detectives.

“I need you to get that checkbook,” Lambert told George. Immediately. Lambert instructed George to go retrieve it before agents got their hands on it because “I got to get myself ready for questioning.”

“These people just want me dead,” Lambert lamented.

In a recorded phone call, Lambert also explained the excessive amount of checks written to her daughter, Janell. When investigators approached Janell, she said she never received those checks. Janell, as it turned out, was telling the truth.

“Those checks, I reimbursed myself with,” Lambert said, telling Rochelle in a separate recorded phone call that she didn’t want to write the checks to her own name to avoid suspicion. The checks were deposited into Lambert’s bank account. She said, “I didn’t want it to look like every check was written to me. I didn’t tell you, and I didn’t think I had to tell you, because we didn’t turn in those books to the district.

“I don’t have nothing to hide; I don’t have nothing to tell. That’s not district money.

“I think they really think I took that money. I think they were thinking I was using the booster club account to funnel money to my children. When you pull back from 2009-2012, it does look bad. It does.

“Oh Lord, have mercy.”

Still, although Janell was not receiving checks on a regular basis, student money did pay for her to take conference trips as well as pay for much of her wedding expenses.

Michelle Mikle, a former employee/manager with Manning’s, said she was working one day when Lambert came in and used a BISD check to pay for wedding programs for her daughter’s wedding.

“She was purchasing invitations but they were trying to use a school check,” Mikle remembered. According to her, the sales clerk alerted her to the situation and asked for managerial guidance.

“I didn’t want to start anything,” she said. “We printed 500 sheets and did 200 programs.” The cost totaled $921.42. Additionally, according to investigator Sam Kittrell, a $5,300 payment to the Neches Room and $1,300 paid to Lasting Images were also expended from student funds for Janell’s wedding.

Lambert blamed the intense scrutiny on the investigation and ultimate conviction of Devin McCraney and Sharika Allison, both convicted of embezzling from BISD while working in the finance department as the Chief Financial Officer and Comptroller, respectively.

“If it wasn’t for (them),” she said, “we wouldn’t be going through this.”

Lambert did provide some receipts for the checks she wrote to Janell to reimburse herself, but it was sketchy at best, according to special agent Day.

“Not only did the dates not match, the amounts didn’t add up,” he said. “They would be for four months prior to the reimbursement. To me, it looks false. It looks made up to justify other purchases she could not justify.”

Defense’s argument

Lambert’s attorney, Alfonso Anderson, argues that since booster club funds are not the property of the school district, any amount of misappropriation stemming from those expenditures should not be considered in this court.