The former board president of Philadelphia Academy Charter School today was sentenced to one year and a day in federal prison for her part in a scheme to defraud the school.
Rosemary DiLacqua, 51, until recently a Philadelphia police detective, had pleaded guilty in July to a single count of mail fraud, theft by honest services, for accepting $34,000 in secret payments and loans from the Northeast charter's founder and former top administrator and then awarding them raises and lucrative contracts.
In a courtroom packed with police officers and her relatives, as well as angry charter school parents, DiLacqua said she had been blinded by friendship with and trust of the school's founder and its former CEO.
"I didn't see half the friendship that became such a betrayal," she said.
There was stunned silence in when U.S. District Court Judge Eduardo C. Robreno announced the sentence.
Mark Gottlieb, her attorney, had asked Robreno to spare DiLacqua prison "due to her extraordinary commitment to civic and community work," her laudatory police record and the her impaired son's "extraordinary dependence" on her.
He gave the judge a video showing the interaction between DiLacqua and her son, Matthew, 19, who is severely autistic.
Noting that the federal guidelines called for a sentence of between 30 and 37 months, prosecutor Derek Cohen, had asked the judge to send DiLacqua to prison for 30 months to provide a "clear deterrent to others who might consider abusing their positions to commit frauds."
Cohen said DiLacqua's 25-year career as a police officer was "both a mitigating and aggravating factor." He said her police background made it more difficult to understand DiLacqua's actions.
"A sentence of probation for a school board president (and a police officer) who accepted a bag of cash, failed to disclose it, and then approved lucrative contracts for her benefactors, sends the wrong message," Cohen said.
DiLacqua's sentencing came 20 months after The Inquirer reported parents' allegations of fiscal wrongdoing at the charter and an ongoing investigation by the Philadelphia School District's inspector general. The paper found that a web of business interests enabled charter founder Brien N. Gardiner and Kevin M. O'Shea, the former chief executive, to earn more than most area superintendents.
The federal probe was launched shortly afterward and found that the school had been defrauded of at least $900,000 in taxpayer funds.
The Philadelphia School Reform Commission required Philadelphia Academy to sever all ties with Gardiner and O'Shea as a condition of obtaining a new operating charter. The commission also required DiLacqua and the rest of the board to resign.
In May, when the federal indictments appeared imminent, Gardiner committed suicide.
O'Shea, 50, who admitted stealing as much as $1 million from the school, pleaded guilty to mail fraud, theft, and income-tax evasion and cooperated with federal investigators.
In October, Robreno sentenced him to 37 months in prison.
O'Shea began serving his term last Monday at the Federal Detention Center in Center City while awaiting an assignment from the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Federal documents show that in March 2002, O'Shea helped DiLacqua get a $15,000 loan from Gardiner that was never repaid. In January 2005, Gardiner gave her a $9,000 loan for one of her sisters, also never repaid. And in August 2007, DiLacqua accepted $10,000 in cash from Gardiner and O'Shea.
The next month, O'Shea, who had only a high school diploma and no administrative experience, suddenly was promoted from director of operations to CEO at Gardiner's insistence. Having begun to collect his pension from the state teachers retirement system, Gardiner remained involved in the school as a consultant.
O'Shea was the only candidate considered at a hastily arranged "emergency" meeting, and DiLacqua was the only board member who knew in advance that a new CEO would be chosen, the government said.
On the same day, DiLacqua and O'Shea signed an addendum to Gardiner's consulting contract, extending it through December 2026 and agreeing to pay him $100,000 for working no more than 90 days a year.
The month after O'Shea was named CEO, DiLacqua gave him a raise that pushed his salary to $204,000.
Federal documents show that in April 2008, when The Inquirer was reporting that Philadelphia Academy's financial practices were under investigation, DiLacqua and O'Shea "backdated a memorandum to make it appear that O'Shea's salary had been approved by the PACS board" in October 2007, even though no other board members knew about it.
Philadelphia Academy, which opened in 1999, enrolls 1,200 students from kindergarten through 12th grade on its campuses at 11000 Roosevelt Blvd. and 1700 Tomlinson Rd.