A key witness in an investigation of possible embezzlement from a federal grant to the Buffalo School District told police her life has been threatened if she cooperates with authorities.
And in addition to creating another blight on the administration of School Superintendent James Harris, the matter has pitted members of one family against each other.
The threat was allegedly made against Shenita Johnson, the sister of project administrator Sheila Johnson-Moore, an employee in the school district's grants office. Johnson-Moore has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of an anticipated grand jury investigation.
Sheari Moore, Johnson-Moore's daughter, was arrested after allegedly leaving a message on her aunt's telephone answering machine, warning her not to testify against her mother before the grand jury.
According to a police report, Moore's message said: " . . . I'm going to kill you. That's right, this is a death threat. I'm gonna . . . you up. Don't . . . with my mother. That's right, this is Sheari calling you."
Moore pleaded innocent Thursday in Buffalo City Court to charges of third-degree intimidation of a witness or victim, a felony, and second-degree aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor.
Moore, who attends college out of town, was released on her own recognizance and is scheduled to return to court April 20.
The matter initially came to light when the Internal Revenue Service alerted Shenita Johnson that she owed income taxes on about $17,000 in payments made to her from the $800,000 grant, law enforcement officials said and Johnson confirmed Thursday.
In an interview Thursday with The Buffalo News, Shenita Johnson wept as she vehemently denied any knowledge of the checks. The IRS notification, Johnson said, was the first time she became aware that checks from the grant had been issued in her name, though she says she never received any money.
"I didn't receive any money," she said. "On my parents' graves, I know nothing about these checks. I believe that the DA and the Board of Ed knows I'm telling the truth. I'm not going to perjure myself and I'm not going to take the fall for anybody."
She also said she learned that in the paperwork pertaining to the grant, she was described as having a doctorate degree, which she does not hold.
The investigation, she said, has "torn apart" her family.
"I'm hurt. I'm shocked," she said. "I do love my sister, and I've told her that. Right now I'm just trying to clear my name."
The checks, according to authorities, were made out in Shenita Johnson's name for work she was supposed to have performed on the grant. The grant was one of the few in the district managed by only two people, Johnson-Moore and Superintendent Harris.
Johnson-Moore could not be reached to comment. A woman who answered the telephone Thursday evening at her Buffalo home, and identified herself only as an "aunt," described Sheari Moore as a "good girl" who momentarily acted "mean and vindictive." The woman said the investigation has been "devastating" for the family and especially difficult for Sheila Johnson-Moore's children.
"They love their mother. They love their sister. They don't know why their aunt is doing this to them," the woman said, referring to Shenita Johnson.
Harris, who also was unavailable to comment Thursday, previously has denied any knowledge of the alleged misdeeds and has said a procedure is in place to investigate.
In her comments to the News on Thursday, Shenita Johnson, 37, said in the spring of 1998, her sister "said she was writing a grant and she would help me get a job."
Shenita Johnson said she provided her Social Security number in response to her sister's request for it. When the job never materialized, her sister told her the grant had fallen through, she said.
In mid-December, Shenita Johnson received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service, inquiring about $11,750 she was supposed to have earned from the Buffalo School District in 1998. The 1999 income credited to her according to the grant brought the total for the two years to $17,000, she said.
After discussing the matter with the IRS, Johnson met with Rajni Shah, the school district's associate superintendent for finance, and other district officials, and then an investigator and assistant district attorney from the Erie County district attorney's office.
"They did not coerce me," she said of the investigators. "I gave a handwriting sample of my own free will. I have been cooperating. I don't need a lawyer as of yet because I didn't do anything wrong."
The district attorney's office has advised her to not have any contact with her sister, she said, and she is complying with that request. She said she never intended to hurt her sister, but relatives have shunned her anyway for talking.
"People are not thinking of how I feel," she said. "Everybody wants to look at how my sister feels."
This incident is the latest in a series of mishaps during Harris' tenure as superintendent. Last spring, he narrowly averted disciplinary action over his role in the district's failure to file timely applications for $9.6 million in state reimbursements. His finance administrator, Barbara Fargo, resigned over that incident. For much of the past year, Harris has clashed so publicly and so frequently with his board over hiring decisions and other matters that the board finally told him his contract would not be renewed in July.
Since then, Harris has been openly looking for a superintendent job elsewhere. He has been a finalist or semifinalist in several other districts, including Detroit, but lost his only job offer, in Traverse City, Mich., when he took too long to accept. He is currently a finalist for the job in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The arrest of Sheari Moore was the latest twist in an investigation that began a week ago.
Shah informed board President Paul G. Buchanan on Dec. 21 that he suspected irregularities in the grant. Within an hour, Buchanan and Shah had contacted District Attorney Frank Clark. The board held an emergency meeting Dec. 23 to discuss the investigation, and immediately began securing documents that might be used as evidence.
Some members of the Buffalo Board of Education, who have been fairly close-mouthed in the week since the district attorney's investigation started, were dismayed at the latest development.
"It's unfortunate, it's incredible, and I hope people can let the legal process take its course," Buchanan said.
"It's all too shocking to believe, to be honest," said At Large Member Donald Van Every.
"If anything comes out of this, we have to make sure that the people we put in charge of administering funds and grants are capable of doing that job, and that responsibility lies solely with the superintendent," said board Vice President Jack Coyle. "We have close to 7,000 employees. There's no way the board can look over every one of their files, nor should we. Someone has to answer for this."