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.

Safe to say, this was a class of people even more hammered to keep up with their daily duties than the card-holders themselves. So they didn't keep up, either, and nobody found any of the abuses until after blogger Allen Gwinn put all of the credit card records up on his Web site, Dallas.org.

It was months after Gwinn published the records on his blog that Kent Fischer at the News began dredging through them looking for hot spots—exactly what a reporter should be doing. He found a handful of good examples. Definitely some low-level people had misused the cards.

But then there was the matter of the hype. The stories had promised much more than small-time screw-ups. In tones worthy of Watergate, the News had announced its own story as: "An iPod on Christmas Eve: $399, Boxes from The Container Store: $2,489, Gift cards from Toys "R" Us: $3,100, Shopping with a DISD MasterCard: Priceless. Exclusive: A Dallas Morning News investigation found thousands of suspect purchases on district credit cards—and serious questions about whether anyone is watching how the tax dollars are spent."

Ironically, the only really serious question—where in the hell was the superintendent of schools in all this?—was never touched by the News.

The program may have predated Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, but why had he and his entire administration done such a piss-poor job of getting a $70 million-plus spending program under control after he took over two years ago?

In an affidavit which he signed in order to clear himself of any responsibility, Hinojosa said: "I do not have any personal, specialized, or detailed knowledge of the specific practices and procedures of this program."

And, uh...that's a good thing?

The district had already thrown Brokaw to the wolves by the time the investigative report came out basically clearing her. The district had initiated procedures to fire her, and Celso Martinez had already trashed her name in public in what sure sounded like a statement of top-level district policy. And the Morning News was committed to finding high crimes and treasons not including the superintendent.

And then there was another little problem the district and the News had to deal with. Brokaw had availed herself of an internal grievance procedure called a "judicial commission." It's a panel made up of three district employees with no dog in the hunt who listen to the facts and render an impartial finding.

I have strong reason to believe that this body has already made its finding and that the finding clears Brokaw again. In any event, the finding should have been released a week ago, according to the district's own timetable, and I can't get anybody over there to say boo about it.

To recap, the school district gets the law firm report which either clears Brokaw or at least fails to nail her. Then, as I believe, Hinojosa finds out to his great chagrin that the judicial panel is going to clear his scapegoat. Again. The people at the News begin to feel their prize package coming unglued. So here's how they do it:

Two weeks ago the school district withdrew its formal intent to terminate Brokaw. They announced instead that they were going to decline to renew her contract. That allowed the Morning News to run a story under the headline: "DISD fires workers after credit card problems: Chief of corrupted credit card program not rehired; scores let go."

What does that sound like to you? I know what it sounded like to me. It sounded like Sherri Brokaw got canned for being corrupt.

Then school district spokesman Jon Dahlander told the News in an e-mail, "Ms. Brokaw's contract expired with the district on Aug. 31 so the termination process was made moot."

I just don't think so. I don't think Sherri Brokaw is moot. She is a human being, a mother with children whom I have met and who seems to me like a nice person. She has been pilloried and scapegoated mercilessly by people who signed affidavits attesting to their own fecklessness.

Those people have ample evidence on their hands to show that she should never have been held up to shame and ridicule by the school district in the first place. And none of that is moot.

Her name is not moot. Her name is Sherri Brokaw.

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