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Tampa trial over Head Start book purchase: fraud or author's passion?

TAMPA — The book at the heart of a public corruption trial that opened in federal court Monday isn't an incriminating diary or an account ledger with notations of kickbacks.

It's got cartoons of microbes, tonsils and Buddy the germ-fighting cop.

It's called Travel Boy Helps Sebastian, and depending on who is doing the talking, it's either an educator's passion or a tool to defraud Hillsborough County taxpayers.

The federal fraud trial of that book's author opened Monday with prosecutors saying she conspired with her husband, a Hillsborough County Head Start supervisor, and a second supervisor to get the agency to buy 750 copies of the book for $9,000.

Johana Melendez Santiago, who wrote the book, husband Michael Jimenez, the agency's former fiscal manager, and Head Start supervisor Marie Mason each face three charges: conspiracy, fraud in obtaining more than $5,000 from a government agency and fraud in depriving citizens of honest services.

U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill told jurors in opening statements that the three pushed through the purchase despite misgivings of others who thought the book was inappropriate for its intended, pre-kindergarten audience.

But defense attorneys said no criminal intent existed and the three defendants did nothing wrong — saying the purchase was above board.

Lawyer Jeff Brown, representing Santiago, said his client, a microbiologist who has taught at Hillsborough Community College, was an educator who went through Head Start herself as a child and wanted to give back.

"People don't always do things for money," Brown said. "Sometimes they do things for passion."

The case is expected to last several days. Head Start director Louis Finney is expected to be called to the stand today.

Finney's testimony is especially anticipated because he formerly invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when he was called before a grand jury earlier this year. He faces no charges in the case.

O'Neill, the U.S. Attorney for the middle district of Florida, also is handling the prosecution of former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White on corruption and bribery charges.

O'Neill has made public corruption a top priority for his office, which has jurisdiction from Jacksonville to Naples. O'Neill has said

After court, O'Neill said he has no intention of personally handling all public corruption cases his office prosecutes. He noted he had pledged to keep active in the courtroom when he was first under consideration for the job.

White's attorney, Grady Irvin, sat in the audience during opening statements of the Head Start trial, saying he was interested in watching a public corruption case as he prepares White's defense.

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

Tampa trial over Head Start book purchase: fraud or author's passion? 07/11/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 12, 2011 12:34am]

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