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Appeals court orders acquittal of former Hillsborough Head Start official

TAMPA — A federal appeals court has reversed the conviction of a former Hillsborough County Head Start fiscal manager accused of fraud in a children's book purchase.

Michael Jimenez was convicted by a federal jury in 2011 of obtaining more than $5,000 by fraud from a government agency.

Authorities said he initiated Hillsborough Head Start's $9,000 purchase of his wife's children's book, Travel Boy Helps Sebastian —Trapping the Germs, from a company that listed its address as the couple's home.

Although he faced up to 10 years in prison, he was instead sentenced to three years of probation in October 2011.

In its ruling, filed Friday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that the evidence did not prove Jimenez had intentionally misdirected funds.

Instead, the court wrote, county Head Start supervisor Marie Mason initiated the order and approved the purchase.

"Admittedly," the ruling states, "Jimenez did not disclose his wife's financial stake in the transaction, but we are reluctant to metamorphose every municipal misstep into a federal crime."

Mason was acquitted of fraud and conspiracy charges in 2011.

Jimenez did not return a call Sunday seeking comment.

The book, written by his wife, Johana Melendez Santiago, was aimed at preschoolers and promoted good hygiene.

Head Start bought 750 copies in a deal that was ultimately approved by its director, Louis Finney.

Employees later told an internal county investigator that the number of books purchased and the price were intentionally set below a $10,000 threshold at which bids are required.

In 2011, Finney testified in court he did not know Jimenez's wife was the author and would have killed the deal had it been brought to his attention.

Jimenez was fired as the county Head Start's deputy fiscal chief in 2010, and was studying to be a nurse.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Appeals court orders acquittal of former Hillsborough Head Start official 01/27/13 [Last modified: Sunday, January 27, 2013 11:13pm]
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