Scapegoat

How Michael Hinojosa escaped blame in the DISD credit card scandal

Here's what happens. A blogger kicks up some legitimate interest in the way school district employees use their school district credit cards.

The city's only daily newspaper piles on, trying to rip off the blogger's story and turn it into its own investigative exposé.

The superintendent of schools panics. He hires a law firm for a million bucks to "investigate," so that he won't look like a do-nothing doofus.

Michael Hinojosa had two years to clean up the credit-card mess.
COURTESY OF DISD
Michael Hinojosa had two years to clean up the credit-card mess.

The law firm finds out the problem with the credit cards is exactly what the problem has always been with the Dallas Independent School District from time immemorial—unbelievably bad management from top to bottom. It's what you would expect to happen if you took a couple million bucks in cash and put it in a shoebox on the loading dock with a big sign over it that said, "PLEASE DO NOT STEAL HUGE AMOUNT OF CASH IN UNWATCHED SHOE BOX (NOT A TRICK)."

But the school district doesn't want to talk about that finding. Oh, no. That might make the district look dumb and incompetent, and then the public would be shocked, shocked.

The school district wants a scapegoat. The newspaper, of course, wants to win a prize. And the law firm, like all good law firms, just wants to get paid.

So if you're Sherri Brokaw and you got picked as the scapegoat, you're screwed. You don't have a friend. You don't have a chance. You're in a town without pity.

Brokaw, the accountant over the credit card program, was at the center of a recent storm over spending abuses at the Dallas school district. Here is what amazes me. The findings of the big investigation by the law firm showed that the credit card program was set up in such a way that it could not possibly have been run properly.

When The Dallas Morning News broke its story in July 2006, the general picture painted was of idiots and thieves run amok in the school district, a bacchanal of spending, much of it for things like iPods, expensive meals and doggy clothes, and all of it on the school district's tab.

Barely two weeks after the story was published, Brokaw was among three employees suspended by the district. Celso Martinez, a spokesman for the district, told reporters: "These are pretty much the ones that floated up to the surface pretty quickly."

So I ask you, what does that sound like to you? Guilty bastards, right? We all know what floats to the top.

Eventually two employees were convicted of crimes, and 86 were disciplined. But Brokaw was not among them.

The investigation by lawyers Paul Coggins (former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas) and Madeleine Johnson (former Dallas city attorney) mentioned Brokaw a lot. But mainly it said she hadn't been provided with remotely the resources she would have needed to watch over 1,400 credit cards churning out $2 million in small purchases a year.

And nowhere did the investigative report say she was guilty of anything that you or I would recognize as that all-important element in any halfway decent investigation—wrongdoing.

Hey, I consider myself to be sort of a lifelong aficionado of wrongdoing, an epicure of malfeasance so to speak. The way Stephan Pyles knows his mousse, I know my wrongdoing. Good wrongdoing has a certain texture, a whiff, a "whang" to it, as Mildred Greene, my 98-year-old mother-in-law, might say.

Brokaw had no whang. I read the report. She looked to me like a hard-working honest bean counter.

You know how they set it up? I hope you will find this as absolutely amazing as I do. First they slung out 1,400 credit cards that were supposed to be used for "small purchases"—anything less than $1,000. It's not the definition of "small purchase" you or I might use around the house, but, hey, there you have it. The school district is so Hollywooood.

Now, to be sure, there was an oversight and accounting policy. Oh, to be sure. The people with the cards were supposed to oversee and account themselves.

Yup. You heard me right. We don't make it up, folks, we just dish it out. The card holders were supposed to keep all their receipts and then do a monthly reconciliation in which they put each receipt in the proper category in a log.

We're talking about school secretaries, teachers, coaches, assistant principals. So you figure the average last day of the month for the average DISD employee goes like this: 1) Call district police to clear meth dealers from parking lot, 2) Deal with angry Hillcrest mother whose daughter only got a 99.999 on her advanced placement calculus midterm, 3) Practice with faculty chorale for performance of Hallelujah Chorus at sub-district sub-associate sub-superintendent's make-up birthday party, 4) Teach English, 5) Learn how to play bocce ball, 6) Coach bocce ball, 7) Teach advanced placement calculus, 8) Retrieve all credit card receipts from floor of car, remove baby spit-up from receipts, carefully categorize and log all receipts.

You mean they weren't doing the log thing? They fell down on the job? We are shocked, shocked. Are we not?

So according to procedure, whose job was it to see to it the rascals did all the proper accounting of themselves? Brokaw? Nah. She had two people working for her. And they had other duties. And anyway, it wasn't their job according to the set-up. The people who were supposed to monitor the program were the immediate supervisors of the people who held the cards.

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