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Leader Too Quick to Pat Own Back

19 Aug

In the August 9 Leader, Pat Martin wrote a column about how the much-maligned press saves taxpayers money, according to researchers. He then proceeded to pat the paper’s figurative back with a bold “you’re welcome.” But both generally and in the specific example cited in the study, I don’t think the paper is owed many thank-you cards.

I believe in the general result of the study, which says that local news outlets are needed to keep an eye on elected officials and let them know that they can’t get away with shenanigans. I am reminded of this paragraph from Pat Gauen in the Post-Dispatch:

When I started as a reporter at the old Collinsville Herald, many Metro East communities had local newspapers. Some of the best, like mine, held government accountable at the grass-roots level. My investigations included a questionable city bond issue, slacking street repair crews, deficiencies in the fire department, and Medicaid fraud at a local pharmacy.

The specific issue cited in the study was negotiated bond sales by local governmental entities, which cost the taxpayers more in interest than sales that are put up for a bid. However, as I wrote in 2013, all of the school districts in JeffCo were using negotiated bond sales, according to a state auditor’s report. So in this instance, having a local paper did not save taxpayers any money on bond issues.

In fact, it was local state representative and current House majority leader Rob Vescovo who put an end to this practice by passing legislation (as part of SB 111) in 2017 requiring cities and school districts to use competitive bidding on bond issues. So in this instance he is the one who deserves some thanks for saving us money.

Another item Martin mentions from the study is that areas without newspapers have higher government wages, the theory being that administrators will raise their pay if nobody is there to alert the public. But we had a newspaper when Dianne Critchlow was raking in $260,000 per year as head of the Fox school district, so it clearly didn’t harm her earning potential. I think the whole Critchlow scandal offers an example of the Leader showing up after the fact, after the whistle has already been blown, rather than doing any investigating that uncovered wrongdoing. And even when they did show up, the paper refused to ask hard questions about the Critchlow regime, instead printing puff pieces on departing assistant superintendents.

Another example of lax oversight, I think, is in the case of county executive Ken Waller. I have compared him several times to St. Louis County executive Steve Stenger, whose unethical, combative, vindictive behavior is covered extensively by the St. Louis media. If the big city media had more interest in JeffCo (they used to have a JeffCo beat writer at the Post-Dispatch; another casualty of declining revenues, I guess), I think Waller would receive a lot more negative press. But the Leader usually just writes down what he says. In a column purporting to trace the genesis of the Waller-council feud, the paper even forgot about the politician pay raise lawsuit, which is really where the relationship blew up. On the editorial side of things, the paper even endorsed Waller in his race for county clerk (will they do so in November, though?). As for the pay lawsuit, it has been Elliott Davis from Fox 2 who is putting the pressure on participating politicians. Occasionally, local issues do rise up enough to meet the interest of the STL media, fortunately.

In short, I appreciate the need for a local watchdog media, but I don’t think we have it here. I try to do what I can, but I am just one guy who does this on the side (though I appreciate your tips, and I have found that exposing wrongdoing begets even more tips). The Leader employs several reporters to do this work and has a much larger audience. One reporter, Nate Anton, did some great work uncovering Margie Sammons’ misconduct at Rock Ambulance (which I relied upon here), leading to her forced departure, but he was subsequently sent packing by the paper. When the Leader starts uncovering wrongdoing, rather than reacting to it, I will be first in line to offer pats on the back.

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April 2018 Election Recap

8 Apr

Let’s look at some of the headlines from the local elections held a few days ago.

Taxes: Six of nine tax measures succeeded in all.

The property tax for the county sheriff passed in a big way, with 64% of the vote. A sales tax hike for police passed in Hillsboro with 71% of the vote.

Byrnes Mill went 1 for 2 on tax hikes after going 0 for 3 last year (with two close losses). This time, a road maintenance tax won by 31 votes and a transportation tax failed by six votes. Will the city try the failed tax proposal again in a future election?

Antonia Fire’s 35-cent property tax proposal failed by 56-44%, after a 50-cent tax lost by the same margin in November. This time 2,100 people voted, versus 1,489 last time. Will the district try again in a future election? Maybe 25 cents next time?

A tax for a Hillsboro library failed for the third time in recent years, with 64% voting against a property tax proposal. Will they try again in a future election?

Despite all the turmoil in city government with firings, resignations, and lawsuits, DeSoto’s Prop P park and stormwater tax passed with 67% of the vote.

DeSoto: Some shake-up took place, as one city council member who was serving as mayor, Larry Sanders, was knocked off, and one school board member (recently fired as city manager) who was previously appointed to the board to fill a vacancy, David Dews, failed to win a full term.

Pevely: Big turnover, as three incumbents, all part of the faction that wanted to fire acting police chief Tony Moutray, were defeated. One, Rick Arnold, also facing an n-word controversy, lost to a write-in candidate.

Arnold: Two incumbent councilmen won close races. In ward 4, Gary Plunk beat Randy Hoselton by three votes. In Ward 3, Vern Sullivan beat Rod Mullins by 12 votes. Sullivan was assisted by a third candidate, William Denman, who received 62 votes, which would have been more than enough to put Mullins over the top. Denman also played spoiler in the mayor race last year, when incumbent Ron Counts beat councilman Phil Amato by 176 votes while Denman got 276 votes. It’s almost like Denman entered these races for that specific purpose…

Denman’s name has popped up in Arnold before in association with a shady political group called Citizens For a Better Arnold (CFABA) that used outside money to push candidates who supported red light cameras. Early on, CFABA supported Amato, but later on Counts moved over to the dark side, and Amato recently broke with the Counts regime (and with the Democratic party, he claims). It is all rather shadowy.

Also in Arnold, he who I like to call the Critchlow candidate, Jim Chellew, was predictably voted onto the Fox school board.

Fox Board Candidate Chellew’s Critchlow Connections Persist

4 Mar

Former Fox superintendent Jim Chellew is the latest in a line of Friends of Dianne Critchlow to run for Fox School Board since she resigned in disgrace in 2014 after news of her massive theft from the district emerged. He is running in the April 3 election. Chellew, in fact, is the one who got Critchlow the superintendent job. As the Leader put it:

When Chellew decided to retire in 2005, he championed Dianne Brown (Critchlow) as his successor. She was hired at $135,217, a salary that nearly doubled in nine years.

Chellew said at the time:

“She will be the finest superintendent the Fox district has ever had, and I sincerely mean that,” he said. “She is one of the brightest individuals I’ve ever worked with and the most talented. I believe the best for Fox is yet to come.”

Not only that, but she was the only applicant for the job, which was only advertised in the district. It’s like everyone else knew the fix was in and didn’t even bother to apply.

Some might say, well, he didn’t know she would go on to defraud the district. But I find it unlikely that Critchlow was a woman of morality, ethics, and virtue right up until the moment she decided to hatch a wide-ranging conspiracy to rob the district blind.

Furthermore, Chellew’s support for Critchlow did not end when she assumed the superintendent job. In 2011 he attempted to persuade district critic Rich Simpson, he who caused the Fox scandal to be uncovered, to stop speaking out against the district. When that failed, Chellew apparently blabbed to Critchlow. We know this because Chellew was cited in the cease and desist letter that Critchlow got the district’s law firm to send to Simpson (and three other district critics) threatening them with lawsuits if they continued to use their free speech rights to criticize school district administrators. From the letter sent to Simpson:

“As an additional example, you approached a former Superintendent of the District in a public setting. Among other things, you informed him that it was your intention to see that two of the District’s administrators were fired.”

Simpson recounted that conversation here. In the post, he states that Chellew also said “he was the one that put Dianne in her position as superintendent and that he would fight to make sure that she didn’t get fired.”

Would Critchlow still be superintendent today if Simpson had listened to Chellew?

This activity seems to belie the politician non-answer Chellew gave on Facebook when questioned by Simpson and myself about his Critchlow connections and whether he would attempt to recover any of her illicit gains:

chellew-fb

Still Supporters

It is also interesting to see who is pledging their support for Chellew’s campaign:

brengle-jc

Brengle, a retired Fox assistant principal, was one of the people caught leaving nasty anonymous comments on the Topix web page targeting Simpson and other Fox critics.

didi-fb

And there’s the big kahuna herself, Dianne (Critchlow) Salsman, expressing her public support for Chellew.

Why It Matters

Some might say about this issue, “who cares, time to move on.” But the thing is, Critchlow’s attorney has threatened to sue the school district, claiming she is the victim. This is from January 2017:

“It is time for the public’s and the media’s outrage to focus on the true wrongdoers – the people who lied to and deceived them, humiliated and embarrassed Fox C-6 School District, and defamed an innocent, life-long public servant,” Barth said in the statement. “We intend to hold all of the responsible parties accountable in a court of law.”

I realize that statement will cause a lot of you to laugh and/or puke. This is, however, a serious threat. These days, lawsuits against local government entities are not heard in the courtroom, they are settled in the boardroom. Look at the many lawsuits the city of Arnold has been party to, or look at how the Pevely mayor scored herself a big settlement from the city. In these examples, cushy relationships between elected and appointed officials allowed for paydays that would have been unlikely had a judge been involved

So what happens if a bunch of Critchlow pals make it to the school board? Will they give her a big settlement? That is why this issue is so important.

Answers Needed

People generally seem to think Chellew did a good job as Fox superintendent. Here is what the Leader said:

He did a great job mending fences, got tax issues passed to pay for major facility upgrades and generally restored sanity and confidence.

Winning a tax hike being, I guess, the modern measure of superintendent success (will he support another Fox tax hike?). That and not stealing. But even with that being the case, the Critchlow issue is a cloud over him.

Chellew so far refuses to comment on his Critchlow ties. At the very least, he needs to tell us if he thinks she did anything wrong, or if instead he agrees with Dianne’s lawyer that she is a totally innocent victim. He also needs to denounce any support for his campaign from her or her cronies. Finally, he really should admit he made a large mistake in making her superintendent. Then he can put the Critchlow issue behind him.

JeffCo School APR Scores 2017; Sunrise Rises, Followed by Fox

19 Nov

Once again, the state has released the yearly Annual Performance Report (APR) scores for each Missouri school district, and once again I will compile scores for the districts in Jefferson County. Here is my report from last year. The state has also released the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) scores; these tell us how students did on the subject standardized tests. I will look at the MAP numbers in a separate post.

Here is a table of this year’s APR data:

2017 apr table.jpg

 

As you can see, Sunrise R-9 school district made a big jump, from 89% all the way up to a perfect 100%, one of eight area districts to achieve this score. Sunrise is a K-8 district near Desoto that is considering expanding to K-12. From what I can tell by looking at the raw data (which is hard to find and a bit hard to decipher), Sunrise’s increased score is entirely due to improved performance on the science portion of the state standardized test. Sunrise went from 64% proficient or advanced in that subject last year to 76% this year. As you see from the chart, Sunrise also saw a big jump in APR score from 2015 to 2016.

In other news, Fox jumped ahead of Festus, who led the ratings each of the past three years. This year, the difference between Fox and Festus is one point on the 140-point scale. Jefferson, who was 4th last year, also jumped ahead of Festus by half a point. Fox’s score went up four points from last year.

Desoto, which has been rocked by the controversial departure of a principal and two resignations from the school board and is facing a state audit, came in last place in the county for the third year in a row. For comparison, a score of 70% or more is required to be considered fully accredited; Desoto scored an 87.1%.

As the Post-Dispatch explains, “Missouri’s Annual Performance Reports score school districts on measures such as academics, college and career readiness, student attendance and graduation rates.”

Action Alert: Last Sliver of Hope for Critchlow Justice

8 Oct

I know I’ve been posting a lot of Critchlow stuff lately, but I can’t help it when material keeps coming up. Here, I will give you an action item to pursue if you are so inclined.

When JeffCo Prosecutor Forrest (Wrist Slap) Wegge punted the Dianne Critchlow Fox theft case to the feds, it went to the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri to decide on federal prosecution, assisted by an FBI investigation. As you recall, the feckless Feds announced their decision not to prosecute in November of 2016.

But now there is a new boss at the Eagleton Courthouse. As is customary when a new president takes office, the US Attorney has been replaced. The new one, Jeffrey Jensen, was appointed by President Trump and sworn in on Friday. Jensen is a former FBI agent and accountant, a resume that would seem ideal for prosecuting crimes like these.

So I am thinking maybe, just maybe, we can get Jensen to reopen the case and right a horrendous wrong. But we need to make him aware of this need. Therefore, I am asking everyone to call his office. The number is 314-539-2200. If you use Twitter, you can contact them here.

 

Here are some talking points:

  • The Missouri state auditor says Critchlow misappropriated over $200,000 of taxpayer money to directly benefit herself and her family.
  • Her wrongdoing cost the Fox school district up to $1.1 million.
  • She used district credit cards for personal spending, fraudulently increased her own salary, and awarded scholarships to her own children.
  • She led a reign of terror, rewarding her cronies financially while threatening the jobs of anyone who questioned her.
  • This violation of the trust of taxpayers at the expense of school children cannot be allowed to go unpunished.
  • The local investigation into this matter was tainted by conflict of interest.

This is very likely the last chance to get any justice in the Critchlow case, and it is a slim one. The federal statute of limitations is generally five years, so charges should still be possible. Thank you for your assistance, and if you get any feedback when you call, let me know.

Lowlights of JeffCo Sheriff’s Critchlow Report, Part 3

17 Sep

Part 1 here, Part 2 here.

Before I begin, it is interesting to note what offenses are contemplated on the first two pages of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s investigative report into the Critchlow affair. They are felony stealing, theft, and forgery and counterfeiting.

Davis Interview

Deborah Davis was Dianne’s secretary and also secretary for the school board. The interview with her covered Dianne’s various illegitimate contracts, as discussed in part 2. It includes a great nugget; when asked if she thought the disgraced superintendent made the contracts, she said she’s “not going to throw Dianne under the bus.” Throw the taxpayers under the bus? Sure. Throw her fellow employees under the bus? No problem. Throw the students under the bus. Done. But Dianne? No way, gotta protect her. Unbelievable. You know who could have made her talk? A prosecutor, with a subpoena. Davis should have been charged as an accomplice.

Other than that, the interview contains a lot of “I don’t recall” and “I did what Dianne said.”

While she has departed from Fox, Davis is still active in district politics. She served as treasurer for successful school board candidate Carole Yount (who has other FOC – friend of Critchlow – connections). Why would someone like Davis who shows no concern for the district want to be involved in the school board? And why would a board candidate want anything to do with Critchlow cronies?

Menchella Interview

Sandy Menchella took over Debbie Davis’ job. Her interaction with deputies showed that the changes to Dianne’s contract were not considered or approved by the school board, as seen in board meeting minutes. This would seem to poke a hole in the idea that Critchlow was not charged with crimes because the board approved everything she did (knowingly or otherwise). The lack of any evidence that the board approved her self-initiated salary increases shows that she is guilty of fraud and theft.

Norrid Interview

Matt Norrid is payroll supervisor at Fox. He pulled out information from 2011-12 and 2012-13 showing additional times that Critchlow gave herself a new contract with higher pay with no authorization. Menchella was consulted again, and the relevant board meeting minutes had no record of these salary increases being approved.

This completes the investigative report.

Omissions

Here are some interviews I would have liked and expected to see performed as part of this investigation:

Todd Scott: Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources under Critchlow. What did he know about all these unauthorized salary hikes for top administrators? We know he helped abet Dianne’s nepotism hires.

Jim Berblinger: CFO before McCutchen. What about these allegations of his Pasta House meetings with district vendors? Also, the current regime at Fox called him out by name for complicity in Dianne’s antics in its responses to the state audit.

Mark McCuthchen: Former Fox CFO, the one who was shredding documents on his way out the door. He was behind the unauthorized pay hikes for top administrators besides Critchlow. He knew what was going on. I imagine he would have lawyered up and refused to talk, but make him do that.

The Critchlows: Why not talk directly to the culprits? Again, they would have refused to talk, but still, put them under pressure and make them rack up attorneys fees.

Perhaps search warrants could have been conducted on the Critchlows’ properties in Arnold, Reynolds County, and wherever else, to look for documents related to her illicit spending and income, and maybe some of the items she purchased on the Fox credit cards. She returned some items to the district (shouldn’t that have been proof of guilt?), but I don’t think everything was given back.

Statute of Limitations

I was thinking that perhaps when a new county prosecutor takes office in January of 2019, he or she could reopen the Critchlow case with an unbiased eye. But Missouri law sets forth a statute of limitations of only three years, so Dianne and her gang are free and clear at this point, as far as the state of Missouri is concerned.

Lowlights of JeffCo Sheriff’s Critchlow Report, Part 2

8 Sep

In Part 1, I covered the first two interviews in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office investigative report into Dianne Critchlow’s reign at the Fox school district. Let’s continue:

Jones Interview

Judith Jones was an employee in the Accounts Payable department under Critchlow. She was responsible for paying the district’s bills. In that capacity, she paid Dianne’s credit card bills and fulfilled her reimbursements.

She started by saying she would not remember any specific transactions. She also said she would not question bills because they came to her approved by Critchlow or her partner in crime, former CFO Mark McCutchen. She also says she did not see itemized lists of credit card charges. In the state audit (page 19), a person (apparently Jones) states that she reviewed and reconciled all credit card statements except for Critchlow’s. Dianne reviewed her own statements (or claimed she did).

Finally, she said she heard rumors of misuse of credit cards, but “did not feel it was her place to question her boss.” The audit states that 36% of the transactions made on the credit cards of Critchlow and her secretary, Deborah Davis, “raised concerns.”

This gets into a philosophical question. Ideally, we would expect all people to do the right thing, consequences be damned. In this case, that would mean being diligent in questioning expenses, investigating these rumors she heard, and passing on her concerns to the school board and other senior administrators. But in real life, lower level employees often cannot afford to risk their jobs. They don’t get golden parachutes like superintendents do. It can be a lot to ask of someone with a family to risk their livelihood.

And given that the Fox district leadership was rotten to the core, stacked with yes-men and cronies, backed by a lax, compliant, and partially bought-off school board, who could Jones have talked to that would have done anything about the fraud? A guy like Tim Crutchley could easily have afforded to do the right thing (if he had any such interest), but it is not so easy for people such as Jones. Though I must say I question her “I don’t recall” act in this interview.

Clack Interview

Kerry Clack was payroll supervisor at Fox. She tells a tale similar to that of Jones, that she was deprived of documentation and told by Critchlow and McCutchen just to do what she was told. She said that McCutchen took away her salary schedule, which is supposed to dictate what employees get paid based on their time in service, and instead sent out a spreadsheet with the salary numbers he said should be paid (undoubtedly to help pad the salaries of Critchlow and her cronies).

Clack stated that, since she was so close to retirement, she did not want to question her supervisors. Dianne forced her to sometimes sign the time sheets Dianne’s sons submitted for their no-show jobs with the district.

Logging Equipment

When caught buying logging equipment with district funds, Dianne’s husband Jamie said the equipment was for a service project in Arnold parks with the kids in the Bridges program. A JeffCo deputy talked to Dave Crutchley, brother of assistant superintendent Tim, from the Arnold parks department, who said no such work took place.

G’Sell Interview

Tim Crutchley indicated in his interview that he heard that Ray G’Sell told people that he poured concrete at the Critchlow residence and was paid by a district credit card. So a deputy went to the G’Sell company to check this out. He talked to Mrs. G’Sell, who acted kind of squirrely.

She said she wasn’t sure if any work had been done for the Critchlow’s, that she was too busy to check the records at this time, and she had to check with her husband to see if she could release any information without a warrant. She said the company did not accept credit card payments, and that she was “in a hurry” and had to leave. The deputy asked her to call him back with the information he requested, and said he would file a supplemental report when she did so, but there is nothing else in the investigative report pertaining to this company.

Hard Drives

The report reveals that six hard drives were acquired by the Sheriff’s Office from the Fox district, and five of them were turned over to the FBI in June 2016 for forensic examination. The FBI returned them in March of 2017. No word is given on what was found on the drives.

More on the Logging

A Reynolds County deputy went to some property the Critchlows bought there in 2012 and 2014 (purchases facilitated by the money they stole from the district) to check for signs of logging, but found none.

Dianne Contracts

The report considers the four different contracts that existed for Dianne during the 2013-14 school year. They are as follows:

  • 1st contract: Salary of $253,694, signed 1-15-13, approved by the school board.
  • 2nd contract: Salary of $256,131, signed 10-15-13, no documentation of it being approved at board meeting, but was signed by board president Dan Smith.
  • 3rd contract: Salary of $260,598, signed 2-4-14, also no documentation of it being approved at board meeting, but was signed by board president Dan Smith. “Done by the order of the board of education” 1-21-2013.
  • Second 3rd contract: Same as above but signed by Dianne on 1-29-14 and “done by the order of the board” on 1-21-2014.

These contracts are discussed in the state audit report on the pages numbered 6-7. In the end, Critchlow was paid the $260,598 salary that year, retroactively applied to the entire school year, though the last contract was enacted in January. According to the audit, this was the highest rate of pay per student enrolled of all Missouri superintendents that year and the 2nd-highest overall.

Smith Interview

A JeffCo detective interviewed the aforementioned Dan Smith. He said he did not recall signing three contracts that school year. He said he used his electronic signature once, for a “minor” contract. The audit states that electronic signatures of the board president and secretary were able to be automatically added to new contracts when they were printed, which would explain why he did not recall using them on Critchlow contracts.

Smith recalled that he was summoned to the office of Critchlow’s secretary, Deborah Davis, to sign “an unknown contract on an unknown date for an unknown reason” (these are the words of the interviewer). Whatever it was, he went ahead and signed it. Way to be diligent, there.

Smith also reported that he missed the 1-21-14 board meeting due to recovering from surgery. Look above at the date the second 3rd contract was supposedly approved by the board.

Dan Smith now serves on the county planning and zoning board, to which he was appointed by county executive Ken Waller.

I will wrap up this post now, and conclude my review of the JeffCo Sheriff’s investigative report into the Critchlow affair in Part 3.

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