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Allegations mostly "rumors,' probe finds

The allegations were shocking: Hernando County School Board members accepted bribes; a top district official falsified insurance claims; school employees received freebies from companies with which the district did business.

At the end of an exhaustive seven-month investigation into those and several other allegations made by two School Board members and others, authorities used one word to describe most of the accusations: rumors.

Beginning in December, after an initial complaint by board Chairwoman Gail Coleman about board members being bribed for votes, sheriff's officials began investigating allegations of fraud and theft involving several school system employees.

The only allegation that yielded any evidence of criminal activity led to the arrest of James Lee Simmons, a district painter accused of using paint charged to a district account to paint a purchasing assistant's house.

"With the exception of one circumstance, there is no legal or factual basis that would support a criminal prosecution in this matter," Assistant State Attorney Anthony Tatti, who reviewed the case, wrote in a memorandum to State Attorney Brad King.

"The initial complaint was extremely serious and clearly dictated the response it was given. However, the (sheriff's) investigation has revealed virtually every aspect of the most serious allegations in the complaint to be either false or unprovable."

When Sheriff Tom Mylander was asked Monday how the rumors become so prevalent if there was so little substance to them, he blamed news reports and the fact that school workers knew they were being investigated.

"More and more things were coming out, or at least being said, that we had to check out," Mylander said. "And we checked out everything that was brought to our attention.

"As in any investigation, you don't know whether you are going to prove allegations or disprove allegations. . . . That's the business we're in."

School officials expressed relief when they learned of the outcome of the investigation on Monday.

"I'm very pleased that (Tatti) found that our sheriff's department did an outstanding job that resulted in a clearing of the district, with the exception of Mr. Simmons, that there has been no wrongdoing by anyone," Superintendent John Sanders said. "I'm pleased to hear that."

School Board Vice Chairman Stephen Galaydick, who authorities said was the source of several allegations, said he does not regret voicing his concerns.

"These were concerns that we had, and we asked (the Sheriff's Office) to look into them," Galaydick said. "I'm glad the investigation has concluded and they found there was no wrongdoing."

The $50,000 investigation began when Coleman went to authorities last fall and alleged that Humana Health Care officials might have bribed some board members and school employees two years ago in exchange for their votes in naming the company the district's health insurance carrier.

Humana officials, who could not be reached for comment Monday, have denied the allegations.

Coleman was out of town Monday and could not be reached for comment.

Board member Sandra Nicholson said she was not upset with Coleman for going to authorities with her suspicions.

"It's something that everybody should keep an eye on," said Nicholson, who added that she has never been offered a bribe since taking office in 1994. "People in public office are responsible to the people and are expected to be honest."

Coleman's complaint brought to light several other charges, including one that involved Sanders and Karen Gaffney, the School Board's attorney.

Coleman alleged that Sanders used "questionable business practices" when he offered to find jobs for her and her husband after she began questioning employees' acceptance of gifts from companies with which the district did business.

Coleman alleged that just before the board was scheduled to vote on Gaffney's contract renewal in December, Sanders presented Gaffney with a hypothetical situation in which a school board attorney might be given a $150,000 contract to "look the other way."

"I truly think she only heard part of what we were talking about, and that's my only guess as to why she came up with what she did," Sanders said.

Sanders admitted he asked Coleman about getting her a job in Pasco or Citrus counties.

"I did that as a friend," he said. "I guess if that's a crime, then I'm guilty."

Sanders said that, despite the accusations, he wants to have an amicable relationship with Coleman.

"It makes it a little difficult, but I don't think it's impossible," he said.

_ Times staff writer Dan DeWitt contributed to this report.

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