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

Windsor Preparatory Academy in St. Petersburg was one of several Tampa Bay area schools operated by Newpoint Education Partners, which was founded by Marcus May, inset. May was found guilty Thursday of defrauding many of those schools, most of which have closed. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Windsor Preparatory Academy in St. Petersburg was one of several Tampa Bay area schools operated by Newpoint Education Partners, which was founded by Marcus May, inset. May was found guilty Thursday of defrauding many of those schools, most of which have closed. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Oct. 5, 2018

The founder of a company that operated charter schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough and five other Florida counties was found guilty late Thursday of using those schools to steer millions of dollars into his personal accounts.

After three weeks of testimony by more than 75 witnesses called by the state, an Escambia County jury concluded that Marcus May used kickback arrangements and fraudulent billing to commit three second-degree felonies: One count of organized fraud and two counts of racketeering.

Six of the 15 schools managed by May's company, Newpoint Education Partners, were in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Others were spread between Escambia, Dade, Duval, Bay and Broward counties. Eleven of the schools have closed, including those in Tampa Bay, and the rest are under new management.

In Pinellas alone, nearly 1,000 students were affected by the chaos and disruption that ensued after Newpoint-run schools were found to be in financial disarray.

May was taken into custody Thursday evening after the verdict, which followed about four hours of jury deliberation. He faces up to 90 years in prison, and will be sentenced Nov. 26.

His Orlando-based attorney, Trey Flynn, said he spent more than two hours delivering his closing argument, telling jurors that staff at all the school districts — and the Florida Department of Education — approved his client's spending. Much of the business May did, he said, was "independent activity" outside of his role as Newpoint's founder.

Rick Wolfe, Pinellas County's director of charter schools who provided documents to prosecutors, declined to comment until after May is sentenced.

Flynn said he planned to appeal the verdict soon and push to get May out on bond while the case is reviewed.

RELATED: Prosecutors say Marcus May diverted education money meant for Pinellas, Hillsborough charter schools

Escambia County Assistant State Attorney Russ Edgar said May's net worth when the crimes began in 2010 was less than $500,000. By 2012, it was more than $2 million, and he was worth more than four times that by 2015.

"The state alleged that a substantial amount of that was gained by the thefts alleged in this case," the prosecutor said, adding that he presented more than two dozen boxes of bank statements, tax filings and records from schools and school districts as evidence, to show a "pattern of thefts."

Edgar said May, 56, misappropriated millions in public education funds — including about 85 percent of the grants his company secured — to buy furniture, computers and other materials at inflated prices from fraudulent companies headed by his close associates.

For example, May charged Hillsborough's Newpoint Tampa High School $157,000 for computers that cost only $53,844 — a 192 percent markup. The school closed in 2013 following widespread problems there, including missing cafeteria funds, a 2016 Tampa Bay Times investigation found.

A TIMES INVESTIGATION: Documents point to inflated spending at troubled Pinellas charter schools

Other Tampa Bay-area schools that suffered similar problems because of May were Windsor Prep and East Windsor Middle Academy in St. Petersburg, and Newpoint Pinellas Academy, Newpoint Pinellas High and Enterprise High in Clearwater.

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Among many findings in a 2016 investigation, the Tampa Bay Times revealed that May used $4,300 in taxpayer funds to furnish a single classroom at one of those schools, 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. Those funds and about $11,000 collected for student lunches and activities was later found to have been deposited into an account May used to pay down personal credit card debt and make other purchases, including jet skis.

He also used proceeds from fraudulent activities to purchase an $800,000 yacht, then returned it before buying another, Edgar said. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more on at least a dozen cruises and trips abroad. Among other purchases by May and his company: Plastic surgery, utilities bills, pool services, homeowner fees, restaurant bills, personal electronics and a car lease.

In 2015, he bought a $700,000 home in Sarasota, which he sold to his ex-wife, Mary Walker May, in July of last year, just days after they divorced, according to Sarasota County property records.

Stolen monies also fueled May's investments in commercial properties he rented to charter schools in Ohio, the home of businessman Steve Kunkemoeller, his partner in the schemes, Edgar said.

Before Kunkemoeller was found guilty of racketeering and organized fraud in March, prosecutors argued that May convinced him to create two shell companies — Red Ignition and School Warehouse — and sell goods marked up as much as 300 percent to Newpoint schools.

Together, the two men split more than $2 million in fraudulent sale proceeds, Edgar said. Kunkemoeller was sentenced to more than four years in prison, but has since been released on bail while the state's First District Court of Appeal reviews his case, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

Flynn, the defense attorney, said Kunkemoeller was one of May's best friends, and that his client denies they conspired to do anything illegal.

"Steve gave (May) good terms, terms that didn't exist with other vendors," Flynn said. "He just charged a little bit extra."

The crux of Flynn's argument to the jury focused on oversight — or the possible lack of oversight — by the involved school districts and the state department. All of the entities approved everything May did, including grant spending and vendor invoices, and never raised any concern, he argued.

"I'm not demeaning the districts, because I think they were doing what they do," Flynn said. "There was nothing that was spent that wasn't reviewed by somebody. … Somebody reviewed everything."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.