- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Eleven D.C. school employees, who took thousands of dollars meant for the school system from a local vending contractor, are back at their posts after a brief suspension, leaving other school employees and board members shaking their heads in disbelief at the lenient punishment.
Typically, theft and other misconduct result in employee termination and possible referral to police, school officials said.
Of the 11 employees involved five bus-terminal managers, three assistant terminal managers, one dispatcher and two bus attendants only six were suspended without pay for a period that corresponded in wages to the dollar amounts they took. Officials said they didn't have enough evidence to substantiate the charges against the others, who were told to do what they did by their supervisors.
"We couldn't terminate them for stealing because they had an arrangement with a private vendor, and we had no contract," said school system Chief Operating Officer Louis Erste. "So it wasn't actually stealing. But they certainly were taking advantage of the situation and used poor judgment. The suspensions were for failing to act responsibly."
The Washington Times first reported the theft in January after school officials began an investigation into 11 employees who accepted an estimated $20,000 or more over an 18-month period from a contractor who operated machines in five buildings at school bus lots.
Besides losing the money, school officials also say the school system may have lost out on more than $100,000 in vending profits because of the diversion of funds that should have gone to the District, and as a consequence of an unusually low-percentage agreement with the contractor.
School board members were outraged that the employees weren't terminated.
"That doesn't make sense at all," said District 3 board member Tommy Wells. "It doesn't send the right message to our employees. How can they possibly be qualified to continue [in their jobs]?"
But many officials said privately that the school system moves very slowly to act against employees and traditionally has had trouble shedding incompetent or corrupt personnel. When the issue first surfaced, it took months to place the 11 on administrative leave, typical in situations where an employee is being investigated.
The payments to employees were uncovered in December and turned over to security officials to investigate, according to inside sources. Investigators found dozens of canceled checks made out to transportation employees by the vendor.
Employees told school officials they didn't realize they were doing anything wrong. Some brought in piles of cash to return to the school system, while others promised payments from future paychecks.
Security officials referred the matter to school system lawyers, who told investigators that since the vending machines were not the property of the school system, no theft had occurred and no crime had been committed, according to sources close to the investigation.
This is the second time in less than a year that transportation employees have come under scrutiny for theft. Last summer, six employees were fired after claiming unauthorized leave time totaling more than $20,000.
The 11 employees began taking the money in June 2000, after a bus contractor left without their partner, Caps Vending Services. Afterward, Caps Vending remained without an official contract.
Owner Charles Butler said in January that he just turned the school system's share over to terminal employees, assuming they would pass the money along to the appropriate people.
Mr. Butler has 18 machines spread out over five lots. Each machine makes hundreds of dollars a month, sometimes as much as $600 or more, Mr. Butler said. After he collected the money from the machines, he turned over the system's 10 percent share to terminal employees. Most of the checks averaged about $200 a month to each of the terminals over two years.
Under typical arrangements with school systems, vendors take about a 51 percent cut of the proceeds from vending machines.
Employees and officials bemoaned the school system's leniency toward the employees but said they weren't surprised that the employees were not terminated or prosecuted.
That will never happen, a transportation employee familiar with the situation predicted in January.
It didn't.
Still, Mr. Erste met Thursday with hundreds of facilities and transportation employees and told them their jobs are being eliminated as of June 30, sources said. All will have to reapply for their jobs under the superintendent's reform plan including the 11 employees in transportation who took vending profits meant for the schools.

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