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DISTRICT KNEW OF SCHOOL AIDE'S CRIMINAL PAST

Federal authorities notified the Buffalo School District three times in the 1990s that Sheila Johnson-Moore, now at the center of a probe into mishandling of a federal grant to city schools, had embezzled money in her previous job.

According to federal court documents and interviews with federal and school officials, this is what transpired:

The first notification came in 1992, when she started working as a Buffalo classroom teacher.

The second notification occurred in summer 1995, when a federal probation officer told Johnson-Moore's supervisor in the grants department that Johnson-Moore had a federal felony embezzlement conviction.

The third time was in February 1996, when the federal probation office sent a written warning to the same supervisor, advising her that Johnson-Moore presented a possible risk of financial damage to the system as she was being promoted within the Buffalo grants office.

Interim School Superintendent Marion Canedo has launched an investigation into how the warnings were handled and who knew about them in the district offices.

Johnson-Moore's promotion and her access to the federal money in the school's grants office also occurred after her defense attorney in the embezzlement case told authorities that she would no longer be handling large sums of public funds.

And Johnson-Moore's supervisor in the school district grants office told probation officials the same thing in 1996 when they warned her about Johnson-Moore's past.

"There's no way she would have access to direct funds," LynnKnezevich told authorities, according to probation officials.

Yet in an interview two weeks ago, Knezevich said the grants department under her supervision "never hired anyone who had an outstanding criminal record."

Knezevich -- who retired in 1997 -- late last week declined to comment on what she did with the written warning from the probation office.

Former School Superintendent James Harris, who administered the $800,000 federal Title VI grant with Johnson-Moore, has said previously that he had no knowledge of Johnson-Moore's criminal past. He could not be reached to comment last week on the latest revelations in the case.

Johnson-Moore was on probation until February 1997 after she admitted embezzling $22,491.66 from a grants office in Tuskegee University in Alabama, where she worked before coming to Buffalo.

Any warning about Johnson-Moore should have gone into her personnel file, two district officials said. Neither could confirm whether it did.

Jack Coyle, vice president of the Board of Education, reviewed Johnson-Moore's personnel file recently and said he did not notice any documents from the federal probation office.

Though he said he did not scrutinize every page, any federal documents "might have stuck out," Coyle said. "It certainly would have belonged there."

Andrew Maddigan, the district spokesman, said it would seem that a warning from a probation official belonged in a school district employee's personnel folder.

"If it isn't there," he added, "I'd say somebody has some explaining to do. If that in fact exists and was given to a district official in an official capacity, where else would it reside?"

If it's not in the file, Maddigan said, "the question is, who knew it and who suppressed it? Or who knew it and looked the other way?"

Those questions remain unanswered. Johnson-Moore's current supervisor, Jane Ervolino -- who heads the district's grants department -- has declined to comment. Ervolino has retained Joseph M. LaTona, a Buffalo criminal defense attorney, in connection with the investigation, according to sources knowledgeable about the situation. Ervolino is not a target in the probe but is trying to get immunity against criminal prosecution or administrative discipline for anything she tells authorities.

Her attorney declined to comment, other than to confirm that he represents Ervolino.

Federal court records offer additional details about Johnson-Moore's criminal activity, persistent financial problems and what the federal probation office called her "pattern of deceit."

She violated her probation in 1994 by flying to Chicago, even though she was not allowed to leave Western New York, according to the records. Chicago police arrested her on that trip after she allegedly stole $520 from the purse of a fellow passenger on her flight. Johnson-Moore returned the money, which she had "secreted on her person," according to probation documents, but those two violations cost her an extra year on probation.

She also had prior criminal convictions for third-degree theft and writing bad checks, according to court documents. And she had money problems. Her Alabama home was repossessed in 1990, she defaulted on two loans, and in 1987 filed for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy filing was dismissed in 1988, but left her with more than $700 in attorney's fees.

Her attorney told the court in 1991 that she had learned from her past. In his argument for a reduced sentence, he wrote, "Ms. Moore has taken full responsibility for her actions, has fully cooperated with the government, and is unwilling, unready and unable to repeat her offenses."

Canedo has instructed the district's director of labor relations to investigate how the warnings from federal probation authorities were handled, according to Paul G. Buchanan, president of the Board of Education. The labor relations director, Patricia Pancoe, is expected to report her findings to the board Wednesday.

The federal probation office first told the school district about Johnson-Moore's embezzlement conviction in 1992, shortly after Johnson-Moore started working as a classroom teacher at Buffalo's School 74. That notification apparently went unheeded because, two years later, Johnson-Moore was moved into the district's grants office.

Johnson-Moore's husband, Alexander Moore, is a longtime district employee who still works at School 74 as a teacher's aide. The couple was convicted of welfare fraud in October 1993 for collecting welfare and food stamps while Johnson-Moore was working for the district.

When the probation office sent the 1996 warning, Johnson-Moore was still on probation for the Alabama conviction. She had just been promoted to a grants-writing position within the school district's grants office, a move up from her original assignment as a liaison between grant recipients and district officials.

The federal probation office thought it was potentially risky for Johnson-Moore to be in the grants-writing job and sent the written warning to Knezevich, the school district's director of grants development and management at the time, and Johnson-Moore's immediate supervisor.

In addition to the written warning, the federal probation officer also spoke to Knezevich by telephone about the warning. But Knezevich reassured the probation officer that Johnson-Moore would not have direct access to funds, according to Joseph Giacobbe, the chief U.S. probation officer for the Western District of New York.

Johnson-Moore continued to work in the grants department, and in August 1995, former Superintendent Albert Thompson promoted her to a tenure-track job as a project administrator. She received tenure in 1998 under Harris, and eventually earned $60,000 a year.

The job involved considerable responsibility and control over money.

"I believe she had the authority to generate payments," said Buchanan.

She also was responsible for preparing federal, state and foundation grants, according to the job description at the time she applied. And sometime between 1994 and 1997, Johnson-Moore began working with the Title VI grant now under investigation, according to Knezevich.

The Erie County district attorney's office is looking into allegations that the Title VI grant may have been used for creating false contracts or making false payments on existing contracts. The allegations came to light Dec. 21, when Rajni Shah, the district's associate superintendent for finance, told Buchanan that a review of grants-department documents indicated possible discrepancies. In addition to the criminal investigation, a forensic accountant hired by the School Board is investigating the grants office.

The investigation of the Title VI grant is expected to go before a grand jury in a few weeks.

Harris has steadfastly denied any knowledge of possible improprieties. District officials have said that Harris and Johnson-Moore were the only two people administering the Title VI grant.

Harris accepted a district buyout Jan. 9, three weeks after Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark launched an investigation into accusations of embezzlement involving the Title VI grant.

Not even Johnson-Moore's attorney thought she would end up back in a grants department, the setting of her felony crime in Alabama. In December 1991, in an argument for a reduced federal sentence in the embezzlement case, attorney Ralph Megna had argued to a federal judge that "in light of her current nonadministrative and nonfiduciary position as a teacher for the Buffalo Board of Education, it would be unlikely, if not impossible, that (Johnson-Moore) will be in a position to repeat her offenses."

Megna's arguments apparently convinced the judge, and Johnson-Moore -- who could have gone to a federal prison -- was sentenced in February 1992 to home detention and probation.

John DiStefano, the assistant principal at School 74 at the time Johnson-Moore worked there, and now the principal at School 43, said district officials have instructed staff not to comment on the case.

News Staff Reporter Lou Michel contributed to this report.

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