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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 levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Hillsborough Head Start chief says he knew no details of book deal 07/13/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 14, 2011 12:32am]

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