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Schools' analyst hastily resigned

A veteran Pasco County School District employee resigned this summer when questions surfaced regarding his purchase of five satellite dishes, three laptop and two desktop computers, a global positioning system, and a camcorder.

Telecommunications analyst Thomas Whitehall, 53, scribbled his resignation letter on a sheet of yellow-ruled paper on Aug. 8, two days after administrators began asking him about what they said were unusual product ordering and billing practices.

In his one-sentence note, Whitehall wrote he was leaving after almost 15 years of employment with the district for "personal reasons." But his last day of work ended at the front door of his Port Richey home, where he handed over computers and equipment from inside his house to two supervisors who had escorted him home and waited outside to recover some of the $19,000 in goods.

Ed Mutell, a supervisor newly assigned to review purchase orders for the Information Services division, said that earlier that week he had found documents from June showing Whitehall had ordered a $4,400 Dell laptop computer and $1,126-worth of Ritz video camera equipment _ items that were not approved by Whitehall's supervisor, Bruce Baldwin.

It appeared Whitehall had arranged with vendor Graybar Electric Co. to have the purchasing paperwork look as though he'd returned the items shortly thereafter. But later, invoices showed, the district was billed the same amount for items now called "MISC" for miscellaneous.

An Aug. 25 letter later sent from Graybar account representative Kathy Duffield to the Pasco County School Board said the rebilling was done in response to Whitehall's orders and in accordance with the wishes of "personnel in telecommunications."

Duffield would not comment for this story, but Graybar spokeswoman Beth Herreid said the company stands by Duffield's statement.

"I will make no bones about it," Whitehall said last week. "I did not follow district policy in this."

"It's not like I was trying to steal ...'

Whitehall countered, however, that he was doing what he was expected to do: find a way to make a good telecommunications system for the district despite budgeting constraints. He said he'd been billing some items that way for two years:

+ The satellite dishes were for schools that didn't have cable, he said.

+ The laptops, he said, were for technicians to use when the district-approved Apple computers weren't equipped to perform certain functions.

+ The GPS was a test purchase to see whether it would help the district office track service vehicles in the field. If it worked well, Whitehall said, he envisioned equipping all seven trucks from his division with the trackers.

+ And the desktop computers were for him and a colleague to work from home. School district officials said the home-based work was in line with Whitehall's job description.

"It's not like I was trying to steal anything," Whitehall said. "I was trying to do what was best."

But school officials disagreed that Whitehall's actions would have benefited the district.

Bob Dorn, administrative assistant for Pasco schools, said Whitehall "intentionally subverted" the wishes of his supervisor by purchasing items not accounted for in the budget.

Terry Rhum, supervisor of employee relations, said Baldwin had specifically told Whitehall that if he needed to purchase anything that was not budgeted for, he should go through Baldwin to do so. (Baldwin was unavailable for comment last week due to medical reasons, his colleagues said.)

Whitehall would have been fired if he hadn't resigned first, superintendent John Long said.

Until the time he resigned, Whitehall received sterling employee reviews. He received the highest "satisfactory" ratings in every area for every year of his employment available under public record laws. In one 2000 review, Baldwin commented that Whitehall's work resulted in "substantial savings to the school system."

The administration did not refer the Whitehall matter to law enforcement, Long and Dorn said, because there did not appear to have been any illegal activity. Whitehall returned all the items he purchased against district policy, they said. Mutell said he was satisfied from looking through past purchase orders that there were no unaccounted items.

"We made no deals with him," Rhum said. "He said he could account for all of the equipment."

Mutell, meanwhile, said the district plans to sell at auction the items purchased by Whitehall that it doesn't need.

Questionable gifts

Whitehall resigned almost as soon as the questions began unfolding. But there was something else.

A few weeks after Whitehall resigned, Duffield's one-page letter to the district said Whitehall not only purchased "nonstandard telecommunications equipment" from her over the years, he also tried to use his position to receive personal gifts from her and her company.

He demanded a set of golf clubs from her, she wrote.

"After about the 10th time of his asking for the clubs, I started to realize that this was not a joke," her letter read. "I told him Graybar would not cross this ethical line. Tom seemed very insulted when I said this. Tom laughed under his breath and said "ethical line.' In coming weeks, Tom Whitehall continued to demand the golf clubs."

According to Duffield's account, she eventually offered Whitehall the opportunity to pick out a free gift from a manufacturer whose products she sells. Duffield would normally have been able to get the gift herself, as a perk from the company for selling its wares.

Whitehall picked out a washer and dryer, she said. Duffield ordered the appliances and had them delivered to Whitehall's home.

"I refused delivery," Whitehall countered last week. He said Duffield's letter was an exaggeration and that, in fact, she was the one continually offering him perks, bringing it up again and again. Graybar only responded to say it stands by Duffield.

Whitehall also said that it is common practice for school officials to receive things from vendors. "People at the district have accepted greater gifts than I ever thought of," he said.

"That's a lie. Just a flat lie," Long said.

Whitehall called into question the practice of school administrators attending vendor-sponsored, vendor-funded events such as golf tournaments and using suite seats at Devil Rays games and other sports events.

Verizon, for example, has invited school employees to attend its Verizon Classic golf tournament in the past. Verizon spokesman Bob Elek said the company looks at it as just one way to get to know its customers. "There's nothing illegal or unethical," he said.

Under district policy, employees "may not solicit or accept, either directly or indirectly, any gift, donation, emolument, gratuity or favor that has a substantial economic value or which might reasonably be interpreted by normal community standards as being of such a nature that it could affect his/her impartiality or judgement." Dorn and Long also said they didn't believe those vendor-sponsored events necessarily qualified under the gift-giving restrictions.

"It's business partnership and relationship building," Dorn said, acknowledging that school officials have been known to accept invitations to such events.

Long said there was no quid pro quo assumed during such events, though he acknowledged it's difficult to define where to draw the line.

Long said the St. Petersburg Times has, for the past few years, invited him to attend Devil Rays games at the newspaper's suite. Marty Petty, executive vice president of the Times, said the paper occasionally invites local leaders to the suite to "get to know them." But she said that the newspaper is not acting as a vendor to the district.

For his part, Whitehall said he wishes none of this had happened. He felt he was acting in the best interest of the district. When questions popped up, he said, he decided to resign rather than risk the stress taking a toll on his health.

He said if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't have billed certain things the way that he did. But he said he believes others in the district knew more about the situation than they owned up to when the questions were raised in August. He would not be specific, however.

Whitehall said he currently is doing consulting work and seeking other government employment.

_ Rebecca Catalanello covers education in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is rcatalanellosptimes.com.

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