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Wednesday, 12 July 2006 00:00

Probe into unusual school spending account dropped

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A former Haywood County school employee and Haywood Builder’s Supply have been cleared of wrongdoing in connection with an off-the-books spending account established at the store.

An investigation conducted by the Waynesville Police Department at the behest of the Haywood County School Board was closed last week after detectives found no evidence of wrongdoing. It was the second such investigation to come to that conclusion. The State Bureau of Investigation also looked into the spending account at the behest of the school board.

School officials became aware last December of an off-the-books spending account at Haywood Builder’s Supply established by Ted Norman, the former school maintenance director. When Norman had surplus money left in his budget at the end of a fiscal year, he put it in an account at Haywood Builder’s Supply.

By hiding the surplus in an account at Haywood Builders, Norman kept the money from reverting to the school’s general account. The money appeared as if it had been spent, but in reality was still available to purchase maintenance supplies when needed. A credit balance of around $20,000 eventually accumulated in the off-the-books account.

School officials were upset when they discovered the account. Norman was forced to resign and an investigation was launched.

Danny Wingate, owner of Haywood Builders, was pleased with the investigation’s findings.

“I am glad it is over,” Wingate said. “We have had a cloud hanging over us since December.”

Wingate said it is unfortunate that thousands of dollars were spent on the investigation only to find what Wingate and Norman had attested to all along, namely that the spending account was not an attempt to cheat or steal school money.

But it appears school officials had other concerns on their plate besides Norman’s off-the-books account. School officials were told by employees that heavy equipment belonging to the school system had been delivered to a private home for personal use. Internal rumors also raised questions over a vehicle the school bought and a building contract. These other concerns did not involve Norman but surfaced around the same time, and the school system wanted these checked out as well. The initial SBI investigation did not look into these additional concerns, only the spending account. Waynesville Detective Ryan Singleton did investigate the school’s additional concerns, however, and found no criminal wrongdoing. District Attorney Mike Bonfoey called the investigation thorough and comprehensive.

“Numerous people inside and outside the school system were interviewed by the investigators and many of the people interviewed were re-interviewed,” Bonfoey stated in a press release. “There is no credible, competent or sufficient evidence that any crimes were committed.”

When the school board requested a second investigation months ago, officials said they would rather err on the side of caution than ignore a potential infraction.

“We take allegations of employee misconduct very seriously, and we are committed to investigating matters when appropriate,” Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent, stated in a press release last week.

The school system has since tightened language in its policies, making it against school policy to establish off-the-books accounts or use large or heavy equipment owned by the system for personal use.

Last December, Wingate immediately offered to close the account and return the school’s credit balance. After a brief disagreement over the amount of the credit balance, Wingate gave the school system $23,500.

On top of that, the school system wanted an additional $3,000 to cover overtime put in by school staff to review the school’s financial records. Wingate was threatened with a lawsuit by the school system’s attorney, Pat Smathers, if he didn’t pay for overtime racked up by school staff. Wingate, who is well know for supporting community causes, including education, considered the $3,000 a donation to the school system.

Wingate drew the line, however, when Smathers wanted him to pay nearly $2,000 in legal fees for the time Smathers spent looking into the matter. Wingate refused to pay.

“I have been instructed by the Board of Education to recoup the money lost due to the wrongful activity between your clients,” Smathers wrote in a letter to Wingate’s and Norman’s attorneys on Jan. 7.

Since both an SBI and Waynesville police investigation have cleared Wingate and Norman of wrongdoing, it is unclear whether they will be compensated for expenses they incurred as a result of the schools board’s investigation.

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