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    Officials dig into money handling

    A report cites a former school district grounds supervisor in the misappropriating of about $1-million.

    By MELANIE AVE
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 28, 2001


    TAMPA -- James R. McClelland worked his way up through the Hillsborough County school system.

    Hired as a maintenance repairman in 1967 at $2.09 an hour, McClelland was promoted numerous times and frequently lauded by his superiors for being loyal and experienced. By the time McClelland, 63, retired in July as the supervisor of the district's grounds and landscaping department, he was making more than $70,000 a year.

    He now stands accused of overpaying certain contractors, ignoring bidding procedures and giving work to his nephew's company.

    In all, about $1-million was misappropriated the past two years, according to an internal school district report.

    The allegations have prompted investigations by state and federal authorities.

    Charles Guthrie, supervisor of the public corruption unit with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Tampa, said his agency has received numerous complaints.

    "Together with the FBI, we're trying to examine those allegations, but I can't comment any further," he said.

    Superintendent Earl Lennard said the district will look at whether the people who supervised McClelland somehow failed in their duties.

    School Board Chairman Doris Ross Reddick said she has not seen the report but bemoaned the fact such conduct, if substantiated, takes money away from educating children.

    "If it's true, I think it's ridiculous," she said. "We must find a way to prevent such things as that."

    McClelland, who lives in Pasco County, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

    He retired after a private investigator hired by the district found wrongdoing in the grounds department. The district has refused to release the private investigator's report, saying it is part of an ongoing investigation.

    That report prompted an internal investigation by the district. The results of the internal investigation were obtained Tuesday by the Times.

    Among the findings:

    Grounds department expenses increased 24 percent, from $391,000 to $513,000, between 1998 and 2000. After the private investigator was hired, in the fall of 2000, expenses fell 51 percent.

    Grove Equipment and J. Fowler Inc. were paid twice for some jobs, sending duplicate bills that totaled $8,271, according to the report. A Grove company official denied the allegations Tuesday. Representatives of J. Fowler could not be reached.

    McClelland spent $513,000 for goods and services without following competitive bid procedures, the report said. Of that, $15,036 that was paid for athletic field spraying services to Janice M. Turner Tractor Service, of which McClelland's nephew, Reese McClelland, has an interest, the report said. Reese McClelland could not be reached Tuesday.

    Payments to Mid-Florida Tree Service for pruning and tree removal increased 47 percent between 2000 and 2001, to $413,000. William Chastain, an attorney for Mid-Florida, said the increased costs were driven by the drought and more requests for work. "We believe Mid-Florida Tree Service will be vindicated," he said.

    The district spent $14,256 to buy a motorized lift to trim palm trees, but it has only been used as a cart for the grounds department.

    The report recommends the district consider recouping funds and seek restitution from contractors.

    "Not only is it the issue of the amount, it's the issue of of not doing what is right," Lennard said. "We need to be very vigilant and take swift action."

    - Melanie Ave can be reached at 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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