In the latest blow to the poorest school district in Chester County, prosecutors on Monday accused two former ranking officials of the Coatesville Area School District of mismanagement, stealing tens of thousands of dollars, and violating state ethics law.
A long-awaited grand jury report said Richard Como, when he was superintendent, created a slush fund to pay for championship football rings and arranged the hiring of unqualified friends, family, and felons. The former athletic director, Jim Donato, is accused of using cash from district athletic events to buy himself a Range Rover and pay down at least $17,000 in debts to Valley Forge Casino Resort.
Their alleged misappropriation of funds and ethics violations occurred as the district's debt swelled by millions of dollars.
Como and Donato were "running the school district like it was their own personal kingdom," Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan said at a news conference in West Chester to announce their arrests. Hogan said other school officials could eventually be charged.
Both men surrendered to police Monday and were released on $250,000 bail. Through their lawyers, they pledged to fight the charges.
Como and Donato abruptly resigned and disappeared from the community in 2013 after being linked to racist and sexist messages discovered on their school-issued phones. That scandal sparked national and local outrage and led to the revelations of the grand jury probe into alleged mismanagement.
The grand jury report is a milestone for a 7,000-student district trying to move on from the texting scandal. Some district residents thought school board officials were too lenient when they allowed the former administrators to resign instead of firing them. Residents held several marches and protests in the months following the resignations.
Federal and state agencies are still monitoring the district's relationship with the community.
"The Coatesville Area School District has been devastated by the corruption, racism, theft, impropriety, incompetence, and neglect that existed for years and dominated many parts of the district's culture," said Superintendent Cathy Taschner, who took over in June.
Working with local and federal agencies, the district has made numerous policy changes to try to prevent abuses of power and restore the community's trust. The school board also is suing Como and Donato to recoup allegedly misappropriated funds.
On Monday, Hogan renewed his call for the school board to waive its attorney-client privilege with a former solicitor, James Ellison, so detectives can deepen their investigation into possible overbilling. Ellison charged the district millions of dollars in legal fees, and had his cellphone and iPad bills paid by the district. Coatesville's legal costs are among the highest of school systems statewide, Hogan said.
Como, now 68, who was a respected former high school principal and head football coach, became superintendent in 2005. Officials at the time said they hoped he would be a good leader for a district where a string of superintendents had resigned amid controversy.
He faces 51 counts of felony theft, theft by deception, and related offenses. He also is accused of hiring several convicted felons who were unqualified to teach but were good at sports, hiring his own family members and those of school board members, and billing the district for frivolous or made-up travel expenses.
The report said Como used money from the high school student council, a donation to the school, and summer school tuition to pay for about $33,000 in championship football rings and pendants for players, school administrators he liked, members of their families, and himself. He is also accused of trying to transfer about $15,000 in school funds to pay for the rings and striking an illegal long-term service deal with the company that makes the rings, according to the grand jury report.
His lawyer, Paul Rubino, said in a statement: "I am disappointed that the District Attorney's Office felt it had to justify all the time and money spent on the Coatesville Area School District-wide investigation by filing charges against my client. We will vigorously defend all of the charges and are confident that Mr. Como will be vindicated."
Donato, 49, is charged with 139 counts of felony theft, theft by deception, and related offenses.
Among the allegations against him is that he pocketed $5,000 in cash in return for waiving fees owed to the district for renting its facilities. Over one two-month period, Hogan said, Donato also deposited $13,000 in district funds into his own bank account.
Dan Bush, Donato's lawyer, said that the District Attorney's Office was alleging a "series of small, numerous thefts" and that he looked forward to challenging every aspect of the case. "What you have is a one-sided version of things," he said. "I promise you there's another side."