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Feds swoop in on auditors' heels

UNITED STATES. Allegations of lost school district funds have attracted big-gun investigators, reports Tim Cornwell. The FBI is best known for trailing mafia chieftains or posting lists of America's Ten Most Wanted. But allegations of corruption and fraud at a Dallas school district have drawn the big guns from the US crime-fighting scene.

About 30 armed Federal agents, most of them with the Internal Revenue Service but including at least one FBI man, descended on the administration building of the Wilmer-Hutchins district last week, searching cars and offices and carting off financial and computer records in a rental truck.

The district caters for only 3,800 students in a poverty-stricken, mostly black section of Dallas. Educationally, it has had more than its share of troubles. Its sole junior high school, Kennedy-Curry, has consistently been at the bottom of the league of state-ranked schools.

But the bureau's attention has not been attracted by poor grades. Because of its thin local tax base, more than half of the district's school funding comes from federal and state authorities. And up to $200,000 (Pounds 125,000) may be missing, according to local news accounts.

"The FBI has jurisdiction over a matter in which the government loses money," said special agent Marjorie Poche of the Dallas bureau. "If there's federal government money that's going to a school district, and misuse is suspected of that money - embezzlement or theft or any type of fraud - that is within our jurisdiction to investigate." However, she would not comment on whether the Dallas bureau was involved in the investigation.

The district includes part of south-eastern Dallas itself and the towns of Wilmer and Hutchins in Dallas County. There have been local investigations of its finances dating back to the 1980s, and a temporary state takeover of its troubled schools is planned.

No criminal charges have been filed or suspects officially named, and there is some question over whether bad book-keeping has played a role. But some school board members say they have warned that people would go to jail.

An accounts supervisor fired last year went to the Texas Education Authority and the FBI with allegations of financial irregularities, pointing the finger at a superintendent, Delores Roberts-Quintyn, who was suspended in March. But Ms Roberts-Quintyn says she contacted federal authorities with similar concerns three years ago.

The matter apparently came to a head with a damning audit report released this month, which suggested employees had been paid for overtime they didn't work and listed televisions, video records and computers paid for with district money last year that were apparently stolen or missing.

The federal agents arrived at the district headquarters at 10am, closed the building and sent staff home.

"It was unnerving," Ronnie Thompson, the district's executive director of human resources, told the Dallas Morning News. "They searched my briefcase, my office, and my vehicle.

There have been Federal investigations aimed at school administrators before, but usually in major urban districts in cities like New York and Chicago. But in Texas, it was regarded as an unprecedented and dramatic intervention by law enforcement. The show of force may have been prompted after auditors were denied access to one school campus to inventory equipment.

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