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Jury acquits two of three in Head Start fraud trial

TAMPA — The wife wrote the book, but it's the husband who got it thrown at him.

A trial that provided an unflattering look at how Hillsborough Head Start paid $9,000 to buy a children's book written by the wife of its fiscal manager ended Thursday with his conviction on federal fraud charges.

After two hours of deliberations, jurors found Michael Jimenez, 38, guilty of honest services mail fraud and fraud in obtaining more than $5,000 from a government agency.

But his wife, Johana Melendez Santiago, 39, who wrote Travel Boy Helps Sebastian, and Head Start supervisor Marie Mason, 45, were acquitted of fraud and conspiracy charges. Jimenez was acquitted of conspiracy.

Jimenez faces up to 30 years in prison at an Oct. 11 hearing, but sentencing guidelines will probably lead to a less severe penalty.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bucklew said she is considering dismissing one of the charges on which he was convicted because no evidence was presented that Jimenez received a kickback from the book sale.

As a court clerk read the verdicts, Santiago reached to her left to put a supportive hand on her husband, who looked grim-faced and ashen.

Mason started crying as the verdict was announced and clasped the hands of her attorney, Matt Farmer.

Jurors declined to comment afterward. U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill, who personally tried the case, said he would not speculate about their decision.

Santiago is a microbiologist, and the jury's decision may have come down to a simple fact: She did not work for Head Start, while her husband was one of the agency's top managers before he was fired over the book.

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

Santiago walked out of court with her attorney, Jeff Brown, and said she was happy but nonetheless disappointed by her husband's conviction.

"We're innocent, that's for sure," Santiago said. "It's sad to think that a lot of people believe you do things for personal gain."

Mason, who signed off on the book deal, has been on unpaid suspension from her supervisory position at Head Start. But she returns to work Monday to her old job, her attorney said.

"I'm happy to be free of this," Mason said. "I'm going to party with my family."

Santiago's book was aimed at preschoolers and promoted good hygiene. Head Start bought 750 copies in a deal that was approved by its director, Louis Finney.

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

Finney was responsible for an odd turn in the case when he refused to testify in April before a grand jury.

He invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination even though he was not a target of a criminal investigation.

But Finney decided he had made a mistake — his current attorney said Finney's previous counsel gave him bad legal advice — and answered every question put to him when called to the stand this week.

The book purchase bruised the agency's reputation and proved embarrassing to Finney.

O'Neill told jurors that the three defendants conspired to get Head Start to buy the book, failing to adequately disclose the conflict of interest.

He said the argument that the purchase was handled like any other didn't hold water.

Others at Head Start thought the book inappropriate, both because of its content and because of Jimenez's conflict of interest.

"This book was unusual," O'Neill said. "Everything about this book was unusual."

But defense attorneys said everybody at the agency knew Santiago and Jimenez were married.

Said attorney David Weisbrod, who represented Jimenez:

"It's not illegal for the spouse of a Hillsborough County employee to sell a book to Hillsborough County."

Reach William R. Levesque at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Jury acquits two of three in Head Start fraud trial 07/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 14, 2011 11:18pm]
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