Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Look for Tampa Bay filmmaker Joe Davison on 'Stranger Things'

    Human Interest

    For a year, Joe Davison kept a secret he wanted to tell so badly he feared it would burst from his mouth like an alien baby from John Hurt's chest.

    Joe Davison, at home in his dining room in Seminole, decked out for Halloween with “Stranger Things” decor, will appear in Season 2 of “Stranger Things.”
  2. Brooksville council begins study of law enforcement options

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The City Council has jumped headlong into a discussion about the future of the Brooksville Police Department — specifically whether to maintain it as is or change the way law enforcement service is provided in an effort to relieve the city's budget woes.

    Brooksville Mayor Robert Battista suggested that the City Council agree to promise residents that neither the city police nor fire departments would be disbanded without a voter referendum.
  3. U.S. home construction tumbles 4.7 percent in September

    Working Life

    WASHINGTON — Construction of new homes fell 4.7 percent in September, the biggest decline in six months, reflecting weakness in both single-family activity and apartment building.

    Construction of new homes fell 4.7 percent in September, the biggest decline in six months, reflecting weakness in both single-family activity and apartment building.  [Associated Press file photo]

  4. Show us your post-Irma brush piles


    Admit it. You're starting to get used to those Hurricane Irma brush piles, aren't you? They're part of the Florida landscape now, just like a stray palm frond in your yard, or the lizards scurrying across the sidewalk.

    A large pile of brush that came from a tree knocked down during Hurricane Irma stands along a St. Petersburg street. [RON BRACKETT | Times]
  5. ZZ Top cancels 2017 tour, including Ribfest date in November


    Bad news, ZZ Top fans. Once again, the Eliminator is heading into the garage for repairs.