State News

May 24, 2014

Atlanta schools ex-tech director to be sentenced

— After his relationship with the superintendent of Atlanta’s school system soured, a former technology director for the district set up a kickback scheme to pad his pockets before he left his job, according to court documents.

Jerome Oberlton, who was chief information officer for Atlanta Public Schools from 2004 to 2007, reached out to then-superintendent Beverly Hall in an attempt to repair their relationship after she rebuked him, but even as he was asking for reconciliation he was negotiating the terms of a kickback scheme with a district vendor, prosecutors said in a court filing.

A lawyer for Oberlton couldn’t be reached by phone and didn’t return an email seeking comment Friday.

Oberlton and another man, Mahendra Patel, were indicted last year on a variety of charges related to the scheme. Both pleaded guilty after reaching agreements with prosecutors. Oberlton, 48, is set to be sentenced Thursday. Prosecutors have recommended a sentence of three years and five months, plus $735,130 in restitution and 1,000 hours of community service. Patel is scheduled for sentencing next month.

Hall faces legal troubles of her own, having been indicted last year, along with 34 of her former subordinates, on charges related to a standardized test cheating scandal in Atlanta’s public schools.

Oberlton wrote a letter to Hall in July 2006 to acknowledge that he had violated the district’s policy regarding conflicts of interest and gifts to staff. He listed 15 instances between 2004 and 2006 when he, as chief information officer for the school district, had received gifts from vendors without telling Hall or district auditors, prosecutors wrote.

Hall responded a month later in a strongly worded confidential memorandum saying she was concerned he had violated the policy even after having undergone training on ethics and conflicts of interest in May 2005. The incident “fractured his relationship with Dr. Hall and, perhaps, caused him to seek the kickbacks,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.

Oberlton wrote a letter to Hall in January 2007 seeking reconciliation. At the same time, he was secretly arranging to give a contract to a company — skirting the bidding process — in exchange for kickbacks, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said Oberlton created two companies to hide the kickbacks and funneled the payments through the shell companies. Payments to Patel were disguised as sales commissions for nonexistent consulting work.

Oberlton described the scheme in an email he sent to himself on May 27, 2013, the day before he was indicted.

“This arrangement was established during a time of extreme duress when my wife was dying of breast cancer,” he wrote in the email. “My thoughts and activities were not rational and my thinking was not clear. But I admit I worked with (the company) to develop this agreement.”

He tried to justify the payments, writing in the email he thought it would be legitimate since he accepted the money after leaving the school district.

At the time of his indictment in March 2013, Oberlton was working as chief of staff of the Dallas, Texas school district and was subsequently asked to resign.

Oberlton had arrived in Dallas in January 2013 after leaving the Baltimore school system, where he had come under fire for questionable spending during his nearly two-year tenure as the chief information officer.

The Baltimore Sun newspaper reported that a $250,000 renovation of Oberlton’s executive suite was carried out at the same time that the district was asking lawmakers for billions of dollars to fix crumbling school buildings. The newspaper also said Oberlton had been asked to repay expenses his office had run up, including trips to retail stores to buy snacks and refreshments.

 

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