The man police are investigating for theft and fraud involving $31,000 in school funds has been accused of taking public education dollars before.
Darrell K. Sims, 54, a former business manager at New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy in Algiers, was accused of misappropriating $1,642 from the Terrebonne Parish School Board in 1996-97. He was a teacher at the time, a school spokeswoman said.
It was one of a number of arrests in Sims’ past that the military academy’s top school administrator said did not show up in an employee background check conducted when Sims was hired in 2011.
That could be because the school’s background check, required by the state but conducted by a private company, encompassed only arrests in the past seven years. The state offers a background search that goes back further. The state’s more expansive background check also turns up charges, such as the Terrebonne one, that are resolved through pretrial intervention. It does not appear that the school’s check covered such incidents.
Sims also is being monitored by Terrebonne prosecutors after someone accused him in 2011 of writing a $9,000 worthless check. Sims, who also spells his name Darral K. Sims, is on a plan to pay back that amount over time, but because he hasn’t been charged with a crime related to the check, it wouldn’t have come up in a background search either.
Sims is now employed at another campus, Joseph A. Craig Charter School in Treme, as a data manager.
New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy Commandant Col. Bill Davis contacted the New Orleans Police Department late last year, a few months after he discovered two checks totaling $31,000 that he believed to be fraudulent. The checks were filed with paperwork that made it seem as though they had been written to Office Depot and Tech Depot, Davis said, but they actually were made out to POS Inc., a social organization founded by Sims that is also known as “People of Substance.”
Davis said that by the time he discovered the missing money, Sims already had been terminated for other reasons. New Orleans Police Department spokesman Officer Garry Flot said Detective Michael Riley is investigating the matter, which he described as a theft and fraud case involving Sims. But Flot said a police report hasn’t yet been completed.
The money has not been returned, Davis said this week. The school is waiting on the police to finish its report so an insurance claim can be filed.
Sims declined to comment for this story, referring questions to his attorney, Benny George of New Orleans. The Lens was unsuccessful in its efforts to reach George by phone and email. Though George did call a Lens reporter back twice, on April 9 and 10, the reporter’s efforts to reach him again by phone and email on April 9, 10 and 11 were not successful.
On April 17, The Lens emailed George a detailed note describing what this story would say about Sims and requesting an interview. Shortly after, The Lens also left another voicemail with George’s law office alerting him to the email. George did not respond to either.
Charged in Terrebonne for theft of school money
Carlos Lazarus, assistant district attorney in Terrebonne Parish, said Sims entered pretrial intervention after he was charged with theft of more than $500 in school funds between August 1996 and June 1997.
Lazarus, who was the prosecutor assigned to the case, said he doesn’t recall the details of the matter. As he looked through computer records in his office last month, he said they indicated Sims was entrusted with the $1,642 through his position at the school district.
Neither court records nor arrest records provided by the Terrebonne Sheriff’s Office offered any details about the events that led to the charge.
After a year and a half working in Terrebonne Parish schools as a math, science and business teacher, Sims moved on to other educational institutions — two years at Southern University, four years at Tulane University and three years at the Recovery School District — before joining the military academy, according to a resume Sims provided to the military charter school.
It is not clear whether the matter in Terrebonne Parish Schools had any bearing on his departure from the school district. An attorney for the school board declined to provide any documents related to Sims’ personnel file, citing public records exemptions.
Repeatedly accused of writing bad checks
Over the years Sims has been arrested several times on charges of writing worthless checks, according to court and police records. In 1998, according to police records, he passed a worthless check at a Super 10 in Lafourche Parish for $136 and another at Nicholls State University for $673. He was arrested and booked in Terrebonne on warrants for those charges and another for speeding.
In 1999, he was arrested again on charges he issued three worthless checks for less than $100, apparently all written at Rouses.
He also was charged twice in Travis County, Texas, with issuing worthless checks between $20 and $200. The first offense is dated April 1987 and was dismissed in 1989. He was charged again in Travis County in April 1993, records show; an arrest warrant is outstanding for that misdemeanor worthless check charge.
The Terrebonne Parish District Attorney’s Office is tracking Sims’ payments on the $9,000 worthless check complaint from 2011. Sims is on a payment plan to return the money that authorities say he owes a man named Nolan Harris Jr. If Sims does not stay on track in returning the money, prosecutors could pursue it in court.
Reached by phone, Harris, a licensed real estate agent in Gray, La., declined to talk about the matter. He said he was a teacher in Terrebonne Parish when he first met Sims, then a student.
Sims declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy in August 2011; the case was closed the following February, according to federal court records.
Private background checks more limited than the state’s
Davis, the head of the military academy, said that he didn’t know of Sims’ past legal matters because the school’s background check went back only seven years and didn’t turn up anything.
NOMMA contracts with Delta Administrative Services for its human-resources needs, Davis said. Delta contracted with a company called SingleSource to do the seven-year background check for a fee of $30.
The state Department of Public Safety & Corrections conducts a criminal background check for schools for $42.50, searching state and federal databases for all arrests for which fingerprints were collected, including those resolved through pretrial intervention before a conviction can take place.
Lt. Chris Eskew of the Louisiana State Police said the agency’s background checks cover records as far back as the early 1900s, including expunged information. Schools are among agencies authorized by the state to receive all arrest and conviction information.
Asked several times why the military academy’s background check extended only seven years, Davis said only that Delta handled the matter. He did not answer a question about whether all employee background checks at the school are limited to seven years.
Donald Dymer, CEO of SingleSource, confirmed that his company conducted the check for Delta. He said his company, based in Jacksonville, Fla., was asked to check only Orleans Parish records and that Sims did not show up in those files.
Dymer said that his company complies with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act regulations enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Under those rules, businesses such as SingleSource that sell criminal histories to employers are not permitted to report arrest records older than seven years unless the arrest resulted in conviction.
State law-enforcement agencies are not beholden to the same rule.
A representative with Delta did not return a phone message by The Lens seeking comment.
In a phone conversation, Davis pointed to the effort to which The Lens went to obtain Sims’ legal records compared to what his school does as a matter of course.
Asked whether, prior to hiring Sims in a position overseeing money, he would have liked to have known of the Terrebonne schools matter or of Sims’ history with worthless checks, Davis said he couldn’t say.
“I have an aberration. I have a case,” he said — emphasizing the singular — “where something went wrong.”
New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy is the most recent charter school to report thousands of dollars stolen from within. In 2010, Langston Hughes Academy business manager Kelly Thompson was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing $660,000 from the school. And New Orleans police are investigating former Lusher Charter School employee Lauren Hightower, 30, following a complaint about $25,000 in forged checks. Federal authorities are now interested in that case, the NOPD said.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a local nonprofit working to eliminate public corruption, said it is in a school’s best interest to know as much as possible about the people it hires — and that is precisely why such information is available to schools.
“For $40, you’re using a law enforcement database that’s always going to be better than a private database,” Goyeneche said. “I think every school system and every school should utilize the law enforcement database. You can’t have too much information on someone that is going to have access to children.”
An incident from 16 years ago would not automatically disqualify someone from getting that job, Goyeneche said. “But as an employer you would want to know about it so that you can ask him about it.”
Once at RSD, now at Craig Charter School
In preparation for his August 2011 hiring, Sims authorized the military academy to conduct a background investigation.
Davis said that when Sims was asked in writing on July 7, 2011, whether he’d ever been convicted of a crime — including “but not limited to pleas of guilty, nollo contendre, no contest, adjudication withheld, and pretrial intervention programs” — he checked a box that said “no.”
Prior to joining the military school, Sims worked at the Recovery School District from 2007 to 2010 as a data manager, school accountant and clerk, and, finally, a technology teacher, an RSD spokeswoman said.
Among his responsibilities while at RSD were overseeing the district’s assets inventory and managing day-to-day student-activity funds and school budgets, according to Sims’ resume on file with the military academy.
RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed declined to provide information on the terms of Sims’ departure from the school district, including whether he resigned or was terminated.
When Sims was hired by RSD in 2007, schools were only authorized to perform criminal history checks going back 10 years, and the state’s criminal history checks flagged just certain types of arrests resulting in conviction, Eskew said.
Court records indicate that Sims was charged with felony theft stemming from the Terrebonne Parish school incident on Feb. 4, 1998, but he entered pretrial intervention, which means he was never convicted.
Since 2009, schools have had access to the full criminal history search.
In May 2012, records show, Sims was dismissed from the military academy for reasons related to his use of computers at the school.
The school would not disclose details, but redacted emails provided to The Lens in response to a public records request indicate Davis was concerned that Sims was using the computers in violation of the school’s employee handbook.
After that, Sims was hired in July at Craig Charter School at a salary of $38,813, according to Tracie Washington, general counsel for the Friends of King charter school board that oversees Craig.
A job description provided by the school says his duties include tracking and analyzing student data and programs, maintaining student transcripts and preparing quarterly report cards for students.
Washington said Sims’ background check did not reveal anything that would disqualify him from employment at the school.
This story was updated after publication to note that the money missing from the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy has not been returned.