TAMPA — An attorney for a Hillsborough County supervisor accused of having his agency purchase books written by his wife told a review panel Thursday his client had no role in the deal.
He was given two more weeks to make his case.
The Head Start policy council executive committee also voted against firing a second manager with the prekindergarten education program accused of facilitating the alleged ethics breach.
Panel members expressed a belief that the manager's value to the program offset what they said might better be termed a lapse in judgment.
"This sounds more like a training issue," said Kevin Haney, chairman of the panel consisting largely of Head Start parents.
Hillsborough County officials have accused Michael Jimenez of overseeing the $9,000 purchase of 750 books promoting good-health practices among children that was written by his wife, Johana Melendez Santiago. An investigation into the allegations suggested that the book, Travel Boy Helps Sebastian —Trapping the Germs, was not age-appropriate and that the purchase was structured to avoid seeking bids.
County investigators say that the employee who authorized the purchase, Marie Mason, knew of the conflict and did nothing to prevent it. Both Mason and Jimenez are top managers within the county Head Start program now on unpaid suspension.
Christopher Rodems, an attorney for Jimenez, told the panel that an internal investigation failed to show that Jimenez had a role in the purchase.
The investigation does indicate Jimenez was aware of the purchase, but Rodems said he did not approve it.
Thaxter Cooper, an attorney for Mason, said his client knew of the relationship between the author and her co-worker. But he said she had no knowledge that the company that distributed the book also was owned by the author, and thus didn't see the purchase as a direct conflict.
Federal guidelines require the Head Start Policy Council to weigh in on certain hiring and firing decisions in the agency. Thursday's executive committee was convened to consider whether termination should be considered by the full panel. The unanimous vote was technically a vote not to let it go that far.
Officials can consider a lesser punishment against Mason that would not need the panel's blessing, said Dave Rogoff, the county's family and aging services director.