By Joshua Benton
FBI agents and Texas Rangers seized documents and served subpoenas at Wilmer-Hutchins school administration buildings Thursday, and a federal grand jury investigation is under way.
Investigators from both agencies interviewed top district officials at Wilmer-Hutchins headquarters. It’s the latest expansion of a broad corruption inquiry that also includes the Texas Education Agency, the U.S. attorney’s office, the county district attorney’s office and the district’s own police department.
Among the subjects under scrutiny: an unexplained hole in the district’s $20 million budget, a possibly illegal $500,000 loan, and allegations of double payments and document shredding.
“I open my arms to them,” Superintendent Charles Matthews said shortly after he was interviewed by two agents. “I’m glad they’re here.”
The FBI and Rangers would not detail what subpoenas were issued, what documents were seized or the targets of their investigation. FBI spokeswoman Lori Bailey said agents were at both the district’s main administration building on Illinois Avenue in Dallas and its maintenance building on Millers-Ferry Road.
The presence of the FBI brought back memories for some Wilmer-Hutchins veterans. In 1996, a joint team of FBI and IRS agents raided district headquarters and seized documents. A few months later, the Texas Education Agency took over the district and ran it for the next two years.
But that FBI investigation returned no indictments. One board member said that she hoped this time would be different.
“Someone should be held accountable this time,” said trustee Joan Bonner, who was also a board member in 1996. “I’m just hoping and praying that it will be different this time. To be totally honest, they’re going to have to make an example out of someone.”
Dr. Matthews said agents did not tell him what, specifically, they were investigating. But he said he believed among the subjects is the alleged theft of a check signature plate from the district’s payroll office in July. A signature plate is a device that automatically prints officials’ signatures, and it could be used to print fake checks.
Dr. Matthews said two agents interviewed him for about 30 minutes, then spoke to Phillip Roberson, the district’s chief financial officer. Through a subordinate, Dr. Roberson said he had no comment.
The district’s payment processes have come under scrutiny in recent months. In May, Wilmer-Hutchins Police Chief Cedric Davis turned over information to the Dallas County district attorney’s office alleging a variety of crimes. Among them was the issuance of multiple checks to cover the same expenditures.
In just over a year, the district has gone from a $1.6 million fund balance to a deficit of undetermined size. Texas Education Agency auditors arrived last week to determine the size of the hole and how best to reverse the outward flow of money. TEA could decide to take over the district in the next few weeks.
Dr. Matthews issued a memorandum to all district staff informing them of the investigation and ordering them not to “move, destroy, or tamper with any records. … It is a federal offense for you to disobey this directive.”
Last week, a district employee filed a police report saying she had witnessed Wilmer-Hutchins’ maintenance director destroying documents under direct orders from Dr. Matthews. The Dallas County district attorney’s office has added the alleged document tampering to the other issues it is investigating.
In his note, Dr. Matthews also said a federal grand jury is investigating the district.
The check signature plate went missing July 26, according to a Dallas police report filed by district officials, but it wasn’t reported until Aug. 2.
“It just disappeared,” Dr. Roberson said Monday. He said he knows of no evidence that the signature plates had been used to write any fake checks. Since the theft, the district has required handwritten signatures, he said.
Dallas police said they have not assigned a detective to the case. Sr. Cpl. Chris Gilliam said there is no physical evidence and there were no witnesses. No suspects have been identified, he said.
“If we get additional information on the case, it will be assigned to a detective,” he said.
Dr. Matthews said again Thursday he welcomes investigators to the district, whether they are from the TEA or law enforcement agencies. “Once they clear us of wrongdoing, we can move ahead,” he said. “If somebody’s guilty, they’ll pay the price.”
But the superintendent struck a different tone in an interview with African-American News & Issues, a weekly newspaper stacked on the front counter of the administration building.
In the current issue, Dr. Matthews is quoted as saying inquiries into district problems are the result of racist attitudes. The district’s population is about 60 percent black. All of the district’s top administrators and board members are black.
“This is the latest in blatant attacks on black-owned and black-run school districts,” the newspaper quotes him as saying.
Dr. Matthews also is quoted criticizing TEA intervention and media coverage.
“There is a plantation mindset here to return things to the way it used to be,” he is quoted as saying. “They want to make blacks look bad and intend to do this by embarrassing us, and destroying the reputations of the positive black role models.”
Dr. Matthews’ comments angered Ms. Bonner, one of Dr. Matthews’ critics.
“I am sick and tired of these incompetent people using the race card,” Ms. Bonner said. “The only people I see out here destroying this district are black like me. This is not black and white. This is about taking care of business.”
Staff writer Jason Trahan contributed to this report.