Military academy reports $31,000 missing through fraudulent checks

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Authorities are investigating $31,000 in public funds misappropriated from New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy charter school.

Col. Bill Davis, commandant for the Federal City school, said he contacted police last year after discovering two checks for $2,500 and $28,500 he thought were fraudulent.

Davis said the checks were invoiced as if they were written to Office Depot and Tech Depot. But they were actually made out to “POS, Inc.,” a nonprofit organization registered with the Louisiana Secretary of State that also goes by the name “People of Substance.”

Darrell K. Sims, a former NOMMA employee, is listed with the state as registered agent and director for the group.

Davis said school officials unearthed the discrepancy in July, two months after terminating Sims, a business manager who had been with NOMMA since August 2011.

“Obviously this is not how we want to run the academy and be accountable to the citizens for public funds,” Davis said.

The Lens was not able to reach Sims Monday evening to comment on the matter.

In an interview Monday, Davis first declined to name Sims, but he later confirmed Sims was the former employee in question.

Davis said on Monday that he co-signed the two checks without realizing they were written for something other than what the invoices stated.

“I threw myself on the mercy of the board,” he said. “I screwed up.”

But on Tuesday, after going over evidence with the detective assigned to his case, Davis said it appears the checks had been altered. “We now have evidence of forgery as we move forward,” he said.

This isn’t the first time a business employee has been accused of stealing from a charter school. In 2010, Kelly Thompson was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing $660,000 while business manager at Langston Hughes Academy. And there’s an open police investigation involving former Lusher Charter School employee Lauren Hightower, 30, following a complaint about $25,000 in forged checks.

The business manager was terminated in May; at the time Davis did not disclose why. The school hired the CPA firm of Silva Gurtner & Abney to work with Tony Taffaro, a teacher with a business background, to transfer the school’s finances into QuickBooks business management software.

It was then, Davis said, that the fraudulent checks came to light.

Davis said he alerted NOMMA’s board to the problem during an executive session in August. Some time later, he said, the school sent a certified letter to the former business manager asking for an explanation.

After two weeks passed without a reply, Davis said, he reported the matter to the New Orleans Police Department. The case was recently transferred to a new detective, with whom he expected to meet on Tuesday.

“It’s disappointing and frustrating to have that happen, because that’s taxpayer money that should be going to the school,” Davis said.

The fraudulent checks were noted in a financial audit that Davis presented to the board during its Feb. 21 meeting. Although Davis said he notified police on Oct. 15, the audit says the matter was reported to police in November and that charges are pending. Police did not make the report available to The Lens on Monday.

Davis acknowledged the months-long lag time between discovering the discrepancy and reporting it to police.

During that period, he said, he and the school’s principal were moving the school from one facility to another, beginning a new school year and securing complicated funding for a permanent school building.

The best case scenario now, Davis said, is getting that money back.

“We have made considerable improvements in our operations in an attempt to keep this from happening again,” he said. “We will also do everything possible to recover or restore these funds.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated Tuesday afternoon with additional information from Col. Bill Davis regarding what he said is evidence of forgery.

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