Public money use by Pasco School District still under investigation

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJune 28, 2014 

State officials are still investigating allegations that Pasco School District officials used public money to advocate for a voter-approved $46.8 million bond, and a conclusion isn't likely until September at the earliest.

Nothing in particular has held up the investigation since a complaint was brought to the state's Public Disclosure Commission a year ago by Franklin County resident Roger Lenk, said commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson.

"I think it's just their caseloads," she said of the PDC's investigators.

Anderson said the PDC has two staff members who investigate allegations connected to elections, political contributions and related matters. She said cases are handled in the order they are received, and there was a backlog before Lenk filed his complaint.

District officials said they are cooperating with the investigation.

Lenk said he's being patient and is not surprised at the length of the investigation.

"The PDC has very few investigative staff members, and does a great job given the high number of self-initiated and citizen complaints they must deal with," he said.

By law, public employees cannot campaign for a bond or levy while on duty. Public facilities and resources also cannot be used. District officials are, however, allowed to provide information about a ballot measure and how the district would be affected if it passes or fails.

Lenk alleged in his 220-page complaint that Superintendent Saundra Hill used district resources to promote the bond issue, which was approved in February 2013. The bond is paying for three new elementary schools and other projects in the district.

Additionally, Lenk claimed the district had a "hand-in-glove" relationship with Pasco Citizens for Better Schools, a citizens committee that advocates for bonds and levies. Lenk also alleged in a supplemental filing to the state in December 2013 that Hill interfered in school board elections by encouraging some candidates to file for re-election.

Hill has said the district complies with state laws and PDC guidelines, and that the district will cooperate with any state review or recommendation.

If the commission finds evidence supporting Lenk's claims, it could schedule a hearing or forward the case to the state attorney general. Lenk said district officials could be held accountable if the state verifies his claims and may have to pay thousands of dollars in penalties.

The matter might drag on further even if the commission doesn't find anything: PDC officials have said Lenk could still take his case to court. If victorious, the state would have to reimburse him for his costs.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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