Hillsborough's Head Start chief now says he'll testify at ex-colleagues' corruption trial

TAMPA — Louis Finney has experienced a change of heart.

The chief of Hillsborough Head Start said he will testify today in the trial of two former underlings accused of defrauding taxpayers with the $9,000 purchase of a children's book written by the wife of the agency's fiscal manager.

Finney's decision is in sharp contrast to what happened earlier this year when he was called before a federal grand jury hearing testimony on the case:

He invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

What questions did Finney refuse to answer? "Everything after his name," said attorney Jeff Brown, who represents one of the defendants in the trial.

Finney's decision averts the odd spectacle of the head of a major Hillsborough agency, who is not charged in the case, refusing to answer questions about alleged fraud in his own department.

Finney, sitting outside the courtroom Tuesday waiting to be called as a witness, confirmed he will testify when a reporter asked if he would again "take the Fifth." He otherwise declined to comment.

Finney's attorney asked the court that her client not be called to testify until today to allow her to be present. U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill, who is trying the case and is calling Finney as a witness, agreed.

O'Neill said he didn't know why Finney had refused to testify before the grand jury and told U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bucklew that Finney hasn't been granted immunity.

Based on the questions O'Neill plans to ask Finney, O'Neill told the judge, "I don't believe it (would be) a valid invocation of the privilege."

Former Head Start supervisor Marie Mason, former Head Start fiscal manager Michael Jimenez and Jimenez' wife, Johana Melendez Santiago, are charged with a conspiracy to get Head Start to buy 750 copies of a self-published book written by Santiago.

Each has been charged with conspiracy, fraud in obtaining more than $5,000 from a government agency and fraud in depriving citizens of honest services.

If convicted on all changes, they face up to 35 years in prison.

Head Start, funded with federal and state money, provides education and social services for preschool-age children.

The 47-page book, Travel Boy Helps Sebastian, was aimed at teaching preschoolers about good hygiene. It contained cartoons and text to be read aloud to children. Santiago is a microbiologist.

But several employees at Head Start testified they had misgivings about the purchase, either because it might violate Hillsborough government ethics rules or because the book might be too advanced for preschoolers.

"It was something that might be questioned," testified Linda Edman, an accounting supervisor at Head Start.

But attorneys for the defendants told jurors their clients did nothing wrong, noting the defendants didn't try to hide the sale. In fact, the attorneys say, everyone at Head Start knew Santiago was married to Jimenez.

And a nurse who testified that she objected to the book because preschoolers might not understand some of its cartoons acknowledged that she never read the entire volume.

So where does Finney fit into all this? That remains to be seen.

Finney told investigators last year that he was unaware of the book transaction, though he did sign off on the purchase. Finney also said he didn't know the book's author was related to Jimenez.

Dave Rogoff, the county's director of family and aging services, said in December that Finney wasn't being fired over the purchase "because the investigation can't prove one way or another whether he knew about it or not."

Finney has faced other problems as Head Start's director.

He 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.

O'Neill said he may rest his case today.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Hillsborough's Head Start chief now says he'll testify at ex-colleagues' corruption trial 07/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 12:36am]

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