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Hillsborough County suspends two employees in book-buying investigation

TAMPA — Two Hillsborough County Head Start supervisors are facing possible termination after being accused of purchasing books written by one of their spouses.

Hillsborough officials say Michael Jimenez approved spending $9,000 in federal grant money to buy his wife's book promoting healthy practices to prekindergarteners.

And they say purchase of the book was initiated by Marie Mason — who along with Jimenez is a deputy director of the agency — even though she knew of the marital relationship.

Hillsborough County officials announced Friday that they have placed the employees on immediate unpaid leave and will seek to fire them during a preliminary hearing Dec. 30.

"Head Start is an important service," said Dave Rogoff, the county's director of family and aging services. "We really need to be sure it's being done right and being done honestly. We have to do this to protect the program."

The allegations involve the June purchase of 750 copies of Travel Boy Helps Sebastian — Trapping the Germs, a 47-page softcover book put out by the company Reading for Little Scientists. It was written by Johana Melendez Santiago, Jimenez's wife. The company's address is the same as the couple's home.

Other employees told an internal county investigator that the number of books purchased and the price were intentionally set below a $10,000 threshold at which bids are required.

Quotes were obtained for copies of Santiago's book from Amazon, the company that printed the book and Santiago, who got the low bid by agreeing to deliver the copies personally to avoid shipping costs.

A selling point of the book was that it was written in English and Spanish.

But a Spanish-speaking county employee consulted by the investigator told him the Spanish-language version was "hard to read, inaccurate, in some cases unintelligible, and not appropriate for children."

A Head Start employee said she raised concerns that the English-language version included illustrations and words — such as "macrophage," "antibodies" and "streptococcus" — that were above the heads of the intended readers.

The investigator found the book was printed by a company that helps people self-publish. Only 1,016 copies were printed, meaning Hillsborough County purchased most of them, his report states.

Jimenez and Mason could not be reached for comment Friday.

The investigative report calls into question the actions of Louis Finney, director of the county's Head Start program. But Finney told the investigator he was unaware of the transaction, though he signed off on the purchase, and didn't know that Jimenez and the author are married.

He faces no disciplinary action at this time, though he has been under scrutiny at the county this year. 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.

Finney could not be reached for comment Friday.

"He is not being discharged (as a result of the latest allegation) because the investigation can't prove one way or another whether he knew about it or not," Rogoff said.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough County suspends two employees in book-buying investigation 12/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 17, 2010 11:38pm]
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