U.S. attorney to take aim at public education funding

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The federal legal microscope that in the past zoomed in on the likes of former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht is being refocused on school corruption.

U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton on Monday called schools "a target-rich environment" for fraud and said there "seems to be a lot of potential for abuse" of public education funds. In a meeting with Post-Gazette editors, he said he is pursuing "systemic public corruption rather than the one-off case," with education as a top priority.

"I don't think you can overstate the importance of education," Mr. Hickton said. He said he "can't think of anything worse" than stealing tax dollars meant for schools and students.

He said his office sees school construction as an area for scrutiny. "There are construction projects where there's a lot of money going into the project, and you want to make sure it goes to construction rather than into somebody's pocket."

He said mail fraud and extortion statutes could be effective legal tools to fight school contracting crime. He is considering the creation of a school corruption hotline and the development of a multi-agency group focused on the issue.

Mr. Hickton, who has been the U.S. attorney for the Western District since August 2010, said the office's approach to public corruption hasn't always inspired confidence. "Nothing offends the public more than public corruption, except a prosecutor who doesn't know how to do it," he said.

He declined to criticize any past prosecutor, but his predecessor, Mary Beth Buchanan, took heat for prosecutions like that of Dr. Wecht. The Democratic coroner was accused of misusing public resources, and after one mistrial and a judge's decision tossing out evidence, the Republican-appointed prosecutor dropped charges.

"There are many examples of prosecutors, state and federal," he said, "who neglect the bigger issues and handle cases because they're high profile, and not much more."

Ms. Buchanan could not be reached for comment.

Harry Litman, who was U.S. attorney from 1998 through 2001, said there's precedent for focusing federal prosecutorial power on schools. He prosecuted Huntingdon County investment adviser John Gardner Black, who drew a sentence of three years and five months after bilking Pennsylvania schools out of $70 million.

"If you have corrupt dealings in [school contracts], you could have broad ripple effects across several districts," Mr. Litman said, so the regional perspective of a U.S. attorney is helpful.

There is a place for federal probes of school spending, said Eric Epstein, coordinator for Rock the Capital, a good-government group that has sought education reform. He noted that Mr. Hickton's Eastern District counterpart, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger, has indicted charter school officials in Philadelphia.

"I just don't think that school board members have the necessary skill set to negotiate, evaluate and review complicated business deals," he said, leaving schools vulnerable to fraud.

Schools already face audits, competitive bidding rules and state oversight of construction, said Dave Davare, director of research services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. He didn't see a reason to single out schools from cities, counties and authorities.

Increased federal attention, he said, may mean that "the honest people are going to remain honest, but those with intent are always going to find a way around the system."

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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