Shockingly expensive school electrician indicted for fraud

JAILED: In the eyes of a group of reformers, Calvin Walker came to be the embodiment of a district that had grown so corrupt it was barely even trying to hide its wrongdoing.

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

HOUSTON – Calvin Walker, the Beaumont electrician who kept on getting work with a school district long after he admitted submitting fake six-figure invoices, finally went to jail the week, although it was just a few hours before he posted bail.

In the eyes of a group of reformers, Walker came to be the embodiment of a district that had grown so corrupt it was barely trying to hide its wrongdoing.

Walker was indicted on six felony charges — four for fraudulent invoicing, two for money laundering — over four checks worth $4.7 million the Beaumont Independent School District wrote him in 2008 and 2009 for work and materials allegedly worth a fraction of that.

Walker was prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011 on a 37-count indictment related to some of the same invoices, but he ended up pleading guilty to a single count of tax fraud in 2012 after the jury in the first case deadlocked.

That scandal got the community’s attention, but when the school district decided to continue doing business with the same electrician, people were shocked.

Mike Neil, one of two voices for reform on the seven-member school board, said that decision was the turning point for a community that began to demand action. He recently pointed out that the indictments are based off the same information the school board had in its hands the last time it decided to renew Walker’s contract.

That groundswell for reform culminated this month with a new state-appointed board of managers taking over the district from the school board, and unanimously voting to fire its superintendent, Timothy Chargois. Chargois’ assistant and the district’s spokeswoman, Jessie Haynes, was also pushed out this week, following her misdemeanor conviction for throwing a body block on Neil.

Far more serious than Haynes’ misdemeanor were the felony convictions in April of the district’s former finance director, Devin McCraney, and comptroller, Sharika Allison, over $4 million they embezzled.

A year ago there was little reason for optimism among a group of reformers, who had little doubt there must be all sorts of kickbacks and embezzling going on in the district’s finance and purchasing operations. Walker was still doing work for Beaumont ISD, still refusing to back up his invoices with receipts, and still getting paid. When we asked him why, he said, “That’s not anybody’s business. When the district has a problem with it, then I’ll do something about it. I’m not going do it to please the people or the media or anybody else.”

Walker was right, in a way. It didn’t seem that anybody in power had made it their business. The Justice Department hadn’t just gone silent since its prosecution imploded, it actually began to work against the voters of Beaumont. Its Civil Rights Division fought continuously to block an election of the school board, which might have affected the racial makeup of board members.

State Comptroller Susan Combs debarred Walker from doing business with the state, but that was about it. Despite the activists’ complaints and letter writing, nobody from the state Attorney General’s office, or local police or sheriff, the District Attorney’s office, or anyone else appeared to be doing anything about it.

That changed in January, when Gov. Rick Perry appointed a new district attorney named Cory Crenshaw. Just nine years out of law school, Crenshaw wasn’t an obvious choice to clean house. But he led the formation of a joint task force involving the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the Department of Education, and the Texas Rangers.

That’s been followed by a stream of indictments, arrests and firings that is expected to continue for some time.

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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