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School district official resigns; audit called for

By Staff | Nov 3, 2009

The Lee County School District’s director of procurement resigned from his position last week, about the same time Superintendent James Browder ordered a full audit of past transactions with Office Depot.
Joe Donzelli, spokesperson for the school district, confirmed Monday that Robert George resigned at the end of last week.
“Why Mr. George resigned I don’t know. That is his prerogative,” he said.
During a workshop Friday, the school board gave consensus to Browder to order a full audit of transactions with Office Depot. District auditor Bob Brown is also examining the transactions.
In April 2008, fired Office Depot employee David Sherwin informed the school district and other local agencies that the company was overcharging for supplies.
Estimated overcharges for the Lee County School District was more than $300,000. Other agencies have pursued the company and received refunds, including $51,000 for the city of Cape Coral and $58,000 for the Lee County Board of County Commissioners.
The company is under investigation by six state attorney generals, including Florida Attorney General Bill McCullom, and five federal agencies for the alleged fraudulent transactions. Thousands of agencies across the country had piggybacked on one contract, called U.S. Communities, that provided office supplies from the company.
Agencies were set up in one of two options, which according to Sherwin, are both fraudulent. The only difference between the first and second option is that the second is more fraudulent than the first, he said.
Donzelli said the school district discontinued its contract with Office Depot in January 2008. Once the district exited the agreement, the district negotiated a local bid for supplies with Staples, Office Max, Wallenbrock Office Supply and, once again, Office Depot.
“We have our own pricing structure and bid, and four vendors were awarded that bid,” he said.
Sherwin said he did not understand why the district left U.S. Communities only to enter into a new local bid with the same company that reportedly took advantage of it before.
According to Sherwin, Browder has done more to investigate the transactions with Office Depot than other agencies. He said many cities and districts simply contacted the company and asked them how much was owed back.
The district recently entered into an interlocal agreement with the office of Lee County Clerk of Court Charlie Green to conduct audits ordered by the school board. The agreement was negotiated this year after some officials grew concerned that the school district was at risk without an auditor.
Former board auditor Julie Nieminski left in 2007.
Audits can be carried out by Brown’s office, but the board felt that Green’s team was needed to conduct independent investigations.
During an October school board meeting, the board also voted 4-1 to remove the board auditor position from human resources files, a decision that could make it difficult to hire a new board auditor once more funding is available.
In her tenure, Nieminski produced a 2007 audit that said certain aspects of the school district were open to fraud. She only examined a small sampling of invoices for 2006 and found no specific cases of fraud, but added in her report that the district’s master vendor file was not fully protected against fraudulent manipulation.
Since Nieminski’s report was released, the school district has launched its new $36 million PeopleSoft computer system in 2009 with the hope of tightening processes and eliminating the potential of fraud.
Sherwin worked for Office Depot for 11 years before being fired last year. He also served as an auditor general for the Florida Department of Health and Human Services, and claims that he was fired for questioning the overcharges.