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  1. Education

Man who defrauded area charter schools sentenced to 20 years in prison

The mastermind behind a scheme to defraud charter schools in seven Florida counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison.

Marcus May, 56, was also ordered to pay $5 million in fines to the state by Escambia County Circuit Judge Thomas Dannheisser. He described May's crimes as "a shocking pattern of pervasive theft" when handing down the sentence, according to the State Attorney's Office.

A jury last month found May, the former head of Newpoint Education Partners, guilty of one count of organized fraud and two counts of racketeering. Prosecutors said he used the charter school management company to misappropriate millions in public funds, buying furniture, computers and other materials at inflated prices from fraudulent companies headed by his close associates.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Guilty verdict for man who defrauded Newpoint charter schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough

Assistant State Attorney Russ Edgar, the lead prosecutor on May's case, said he believes it to be the first racketeering charge brought against the owner of a charter school management company in Florida.

"It's a good result that is significant because this involved public education funds," he said. "As I told the court, education is the foundation for a free and democratic society, and that opportunity should never be taken away."

Defense attorney Trey Flynn, who asked the judge to give May the minimum sentence of seven years in addition to probation, said he plans to appeal the 20-year sentence in the next few days. A financial expert Flynn called as a witness was barred from testifying, he said, and that hurt his argument.

"There are a couple of issues about the trial that we think need to be reviewed," Flynn said. "We were really handcuffed in what we could present to the jury."

May is being held in the Escambia County Jail awaiting placement at a Florida Department of Corrections facility, his attorney added. He could be released once the appeal is formalized.

A 2016 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times that examined scores of transactions revealed Newpoint's activities in Pinellas schools. In a particular instance that was typical of the scheme, May used $4,300 in taxpayer funds to furnish a single classroom when he could have purchased the same goods from the Pinellas County school district warehouse for a third of the price.

He also inflated enrollment estimates to receive more federal aid, prosecutors said, and sold school uniforms at steep prices to make a profit.

At the same time, May's personal wealth soared, along with that of a partner, businessman Steve Kunkemoeller, who also was found guilty of racketeering and organized fraud in March. Kunkemoeller was sentenced to more than four years in prison, but has been released on bail while he appeals.

In a Nov. 5 letter to the judge over May's case, Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego estimated the school district lost more than $1 million due to May's crimes. In Hillsborough, it was about $339,000, superintendent Jeff Eakins said. Pending a future restitution hearing, May could have to repay those monies and others, Edgar said.

Officials from many of the involved counties testified against May at the request of the prosecutor, sharing details about their interactions with Newpoint schools and general information about oversight. Rick Wolfe, who oversees charters in Pinellas, said Wednesday that many in the county were pleased to hear that May will pay for his crimes.

"It's a good thing to see aggressive prosecution of people who take advantage of children, families and taxpayers," Wolfe said. "It's taken awhile to get there, but it's good to see the outcome."

He said he's hopeful Florida lawmakers take notice of May's case and reexamine the way charter schools operate in the state so that school districts don't have their "hands tied."

Edgar said that's his hope, too. During the case, he said, many people told him of the need to reform Florida laws regarding charter schools.

"We have an obligation to safeguard (public education) monies and deal appropriately with anyone who threatens those resources," Edgar said. "Opportunity presents itself if there is a lack of control or oversight."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.