By Joshua Benton
Charles Matthews, superintendent of the troubled Wilmer-Hutchins schools, was indicted Thursday on charges that he tampered with evidence in an ongoing investigation.
The district’s maintenance director, Wallace Faggett, also was indicted by a Dallas County grand jury on the same charge. Evidence tampering is a third-degree felony with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
The troubled southern Dallas County district is the target of a major criminal investigation into corruption allegations. Officials said more employees of the school district, which has more than 2,800 students, could be indicted.
“Maybe this is just the first step in getting the quality of education that we’d all like to see those children have,” Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill said.
Dr. Matthews said Thursday afternoon that the indictments were a result of a misunderstanding. He said he had only wanted some documents thrown out because they made the place look untidy.
“I look forward to my day in court,” he said.
Mr. Faggett was contacted by phone but declined to comment.
The charges are based on evidence that Dr. Matthews ordered Mr. Faggett to destroy purchase orders and other documents that bear the name of Gerald Henderson, the district’s former maintenance director. Mr. Henderson’s role in the district was among the subjects of a Texas Education Agency audit into the district’s finances.
Mr. Henderson’s signature continued to appear on district documents for more than a year after he stopped working for the district and became too ill to sign his name legibly. His name and salary also appeared in the district’s budget after he no longer worked in the district.
Wilmer-Hutchins has been the subject of dozens of investigations over the last decade by education officials and a long list of law-enforcement agencies. Among the current investigators are the FBI, the Texas Rangers, state and federal grand juries, the TEA, and as of this week, the Internal Revenue Service.
But Thursday’s indictments are thought to be the first against district employees.
“It’s a day for new beginnings in the district,” said Wilmer-Hutchins Police Chief Cedric Davis, who has made public charges about corruption in the district since spring.
The current round of troubles in Wilmer-Hutchins began when a storm in June tore holes in the district’s high school and officials did not properly repair the damage. Students could not attend classes in the main high school building for more than a month after school was scheduled to start.
Then the district ran out of money, just a few months after reporting a $1.6 million fund balance. On Aug. 25, the district could not meet its monthly payroll, and many teachers went without pay. Troubled by the missing money and other allegations of corruption, the Texas Education Agency sent an audit team to the district Aug. 30.
Two days later, Dr. Matthews was accused of ordering Mr. Faggett to gather up any documents bearing Mr. Henderson’s name and destroy them.
At the time, Mr. Faggett’s administrative assistant, Walterine Hardin, told The Dallas Morning News that she had gathered up the documents at Mr. Faggett’s request.
She said he told her “the superintendent wanted us to destroy some documents.” Mr. Faggett “tore them up in front of us,” she said.
Ms. Hardin later reported the incident to Wilmer-Hutchins ISD police. Police and TEA officials found the torn documents, including a stack of purchase orders, in a trash bin behind the district’s maintenance building.
Dr. Matthews said Thursday that he had done nothing wrong. He said that the maintenance office had a lot of extra paper lying around and that he wanted Mr. Faggett to “tidy it up.” He said the maintenance department’s secretary was “really sloppy.”
“I told him, ‘You need to clean up your area, get rid of the old stuff,'” he said. “It was filthy down there. It was untidy.”
Tom Canby, the TEA’s managing director of financial audits called the charges “very serious matters.”
“We hold public officials to a high level of professionalism because they have responsibility over large amounts of public funds,” he said.
The TEA could take over the school district within two weeks.
Mr. Canby said this was, to his knowledge, the first time a school official has faced indictment for obstructing a TEA audit investigation. He has been at the TEA since 1978.
The charges filed Thursday carry a penalty of between two and 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Both men are allowed 24 hours to surrender to authorities and post bail.
The multi-agency criminal investigation into corruption in Wilmer-Hutchins continues. Mr. Hill said he hopes the charges will increase public confidence in the district.
“Certainly the students and kids at Wilmer-Hutchins deserve the finest education they could possibly have,” the district attorney said. “Certainly that means having an administration that’s free of corruption and crime.”
Dr. Matthews said he probably would represent himself in court.
“I won’t need an attorney,” he said. “Truth is on my side.”
He said he had no plans to step aside as superintendent.
Mr. Faggett continues as maintenance director, but the department was placed under the supervision of Lew Blackburn, the district’s human resources director. Dr. Blackburn is also a Dallas school trustee.
Dr. Blackburn said he did not know whether it was district policy to suspend district employees under indictment.
“We’ve got to make that decision,” he said.
Board President Luther Edwards, a supporter of Dr. Matthews, said it was premature to discuss what would happen to the superintendent.
“He will have his day in court,” he said.
He said the school board would discuss the matter at its meeting Monday, probably in a closed session.
But trustee Joan Bonner, a long-standing Matthews opponent, said she thinks Dr. Matthews should step down.
“It’s long past due,” she said. “This proves the legal system can work.”
Staff writer Robert Tharp contributed to this report.