Police investigate reports of school misspending in Liberty, Mo., district

Monday, July 28, 2008

LIBERTY, Mo. -- Police are investigating reports of possible fiscal mismanagement in the Liberty School District.

Building on a recent private audit submitted to the school board, investigators will be looking into issues ranging from unauthorized use of school credit cards and property to questionable decisions on multimillion-dollar construction projects.

The school board requested the investigation, which will occur in cooperation with a state audit to begin Aug. 18, police chief Craig Knouse told The Kansas City Star in a story published Sunday.

Knouse said the department is starting with the written audit report submitted to the school board by Westbrook & Co. and released to the public July 14.

"Based on our independent review of the document, we have decided that we want to look at more things," he said. "Wherever the investigation leads us, that's where we're going to go."

In addition to the police, school board president John Sedlock also notified Clay County Prosecutor Dan White and federal prosecutor John Wood.

Sedlock, in his letter to White and Wood, said the board doesn't yet know if former or current administrators committed any crimes or if the problems involve state or federal issues.

"The district asks that you take whatever action you deem appropriate regarding this matter," Sedlock wrote. "The district and Westbrook will cooperate fully if you choose to investigate the matter."

The Westbrook auditors raised questions about personal use of district credit cards, purchases of expensive meals and alcohol, questionable reimbursement requests, circumvention of construction project bidding and overall financial management for the district.

Some of the issues occurred under former superintendents Scott Taveau and Phil Wright.

Taveau said he didn't know about the police investigation and declined to comment. Wright, in a statement released through his attorney, said he too knew nothing about the investigation but said he had done nothing criminal and looked forward to a third-party investigation.

The board is meanwhile looking into the spending of two current administrators, Steve Fleming and Jim Hammen.

Knouse said Liberty police investigators will present their findings to the Clay County prosecutor, who will determine whether to file criminal charges.

He also said he has contacted the state auditor.

"I think we'll all be sitting down at the table together," he said. "They'll be telling us what they've determined, and we'll do the same. We'll try to minimize any duplication of effort."

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office said the office never confirms or discusses any investigation.

Knouse said the parents need the various investigations to move the Liberty school system forward.

"Clearly, the people of this community want to be able to say this is it, everything is out there on the table," he said. "For the benefit of the district, getting everything out there and letter the chips fall is the only answer to this difficulty."

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