Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Hillsborough Head Start chief says he knew no details of book deal

TAMPA — It's the other lawyer's fault.

That's what the attorney for Louis Finney, chief of Hillsborough Head Start, said about her client's refusal in April to testify before a federal grand jury looking into allegations of fraud by two of his underlings.

Finney had invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination upon advice of his attorney, his current lawyer said.

"I think in this instance it was the completely wrong thing to do," said attorney Lori Palmieri, who isn't the counsel in question. Finney "got bad legal advice. We're trying to rectify that."

She said Finney had no need to "take the Fifth" since he was not the target of any criminal probe.

So on Wednesday Finney raised his right hand, swore to tell the truth and answered every question put to him in the fraud trial of two former, high-ranking Head Start employees.

If Finney invoking the Fifth earlier this year raised expectations about what he would tell jurors this week, his actual testimony proved anticlimactic.

Finney told lawyers in the U.S. District Court trial exactly what he told a county investigator last year: Finney said he approved the $9,000 purchase for 750 copies of a children's book authored by the wife of Head Start's former fiscal manager.

But Finney said he did not know of the relationship when he approved the purchase and would not have done so if his staff had told him.

"In my opinion, I would think it was a conflict of interest," said Finney.

Former Head Start supervisor Marie Mason, 45; former Head Start fiscal manager Michael Jimenez, 38; and Jimenez's wife, Johana Melendez Santiago, 39, are charged with a conspiracy to get Head Start to buy the self-published book.

The book, Travel Boy Helps Sebastian, is aimed at preschoolers and promotes good hygiene.

The defendants, who deny wrongdoing, are charged with conspiracy, fraud in obtaining more than $5,000 from a government agency and fraud in depriving citizens of honest services.

They face up to 35 years in prison.

Head Start — funded with federal, state and county money — is an anti-poverty program providing education and social services for preschool-age children.

So who is the attorney who gave Finney this bad advice?

Finney, said Palmieri, wouldn't identify the counsel to reporters. But she said the lawyer works in employment, not criminal law.

"I couldn't even begin to understand why somebody would give Mr. Finney that advice given that he has done nothing improper," said Palmieri, a board-certified criminal attorney.

As a result, Palmieri said, Finney has been unfairly "vilified" by news stories.

She said Finney quickly realized it was a mistake to invoke the Fifth Amendment and contacted her the same day.

Palmieri recalled advice: "Answer their questions. You don't have anything to hide."

So on Wednesday, he testified.

Neither O'Neill nor defense lawyers asked Finney about his refusal to testify earlier this year, so jurors remain unaware.

Defense lawyers who cross-examined Finney focused on several internal county investigations in 2010 involving him.

Finney has received counseling and a written reprimand for allegations that include renting space at almost no cost to a company run by a member of a Head Start advisory committee and driving a county vehicle without a valid Florida driver's license.

David Weisbrod, Jimenez's lawyer, grilled Finney on whether Head Start funds had previously been used to benefit employees.

Weisbrod asked about tuition reimbursement for the continuing education of Head Start employees and the program paying for Finney's doctoral studies.

Given all that, was it improper for an employee to benefit from a Head Start expenditure?

"No, there is no prohibition," Finney told Weisbrod.

In less than 45 minutes, Finney's testimony was done. He declined to comment afterward. The trial continues today.

"Mr. Finney has learned a very valuable lesson," Palmieri said, "and hopefully he can get back to the business of Head Start."

Reach William R. Levesque at or (813) 226-3432.

Hillsborough Head Start chief says he knew no details of book deal 07/13/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 11:32pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Pasco woman gives birth to child fathered by 11 year old, deputies say


    A Port Richey woman was arrested Tuesday, nearly three years after deputies say she gave birth to a child fathered by an 11-year-old boy.

    Marissa Mowry, 25, was arrested Tuesday on charges she sexually assaulted an 11-year-old and gave birth to his child. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]
  2. For good of the Rays, Tim Beckham should embrace move to second

    The Heater

    PITTSBURGH — The acquisition of slick-fielding shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria said a lot of things, most notably that the Rays are serious about making in-season moves to bolster their chances to make the playoffs, with a reliever, or two, next on the shopping list.

    PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 27:  Tim Beckham #1 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates with teammates after scoring during the eighth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on June 27, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) 700011399
  3. St. Petersburg showdown: Kriseman faces Baker for first time tonight at the Rev. Louis Murphy Sr.'s church

    Local Government

    A standing-room-only crowd packed a Midtown church banquet hall Tuesday to witness the first face-off between Mayor Rick Kriseman and former mayor Rick Baker in what is a watershed mayoral contest in the city's history.

    Former Mayor Rick Baker, left, is challenging incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman, right, to become St. Petersburg mayor.
  4. At College World Series, the save goes to an LSU dad/doctor


    OMAHA, Neb. — The father of LSU pitcher Jared Poche' helped revive an 87-year-old man who was slumped on the TD Ameritrade Park concourse with no pulse during Game 1 of the College World Series finals.

    UF’s Tyler Dyson delivers against LSU in Tuesday’s late CWS Game 2. Go to
  5. Plant City police searching for drive-by shooter


    PLANT CITY — Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay is offering a reward for information leading to an arrest in an early morning drive-by shooting outside a home.

    John J. Keeper, 49, was shot in the thigh in a drive-by shooting early Tuesday outside this home at 516 E Laura St. in Plant City. [Hillsborough County Property Appraiser]