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State’s attorney probes Rock Terrace case

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Published on: Wednesday, November 27, 2013

By Holden Wilen

ROCKVILLE –The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office has issued grand jury subpoenas for the bank account records of Rock Terrace Students as it continues to investigate allegations of the misuse of student funds by school officials.

Parents of former and current Rock Terrace students allege the school, set up bank accounts for students and paid them for work completed in a transition-to-work program. However, the parents said they were not aware of the bank accounts, and the additional income created complications when attempting to get benefits for their families. Parents also say school staff withdrew money from the students’ accounts.

The Rock Terrace School provides education for special-needs students suffering autism spectrum disorders, speech and language disorders, emotional impairment, or other health impairment issues.

The school’s former principal, Dianne G. Thornton, retired in August after 12 years at the position. Montgomery County Public Schools already completed its own investigation, but the school system’s chief operating officer, Larry Bowers, told parents there were no findings of fraudulent behavior.

According to a copy of the subpoena sent to Educational Systems Federal Credit Union, the State’s Attorney’s office is asking the custodian of records for the credit union, or another authorized representative, to testify before a grand jury on Dec. 12. Educational Systems merged last year with MCT Federal Credit, where the students originally opened their bank accounts.

MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig said he is not aware of any school system employees that have received a subpoena. Additionally, he said the school system asked the State’s Attorney to get involved when the allegations first came to light during the summer.

“We asked the State’s Attorney to get involved because, using subpoena powers, they could access bank records that we cannot,” Tofig said. “It appears that is what the State’s Attorney’s office is doing.”

Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the State’s Attorney’s office, said he could not comment and would not confirm or deny the office sent subpoenas.

“Any activity associated with a grand jury is considered secret,” Korionoff said. “I am not allowed to talk about such matters.  If and when a case develops and is adjudicated in a court of law, I will be happy to respond to your questions but as of now I cannot.”

Lyda Astrove, a local attorney and special education advocate who has been helping the parents and made MCPS officials aware of the issues at Rock Terrace, said she is aware of three parents who received notification their child’s bank account records were being subpoenaed.

A grand jury investigation, Astrove said, is a good start, but she will not give up helping the families until the children are given their money back.

Previously, Astrove asked MCPS to hire an external forensic auditor. She said is still standing by her request, especially after learning that MCPS’ supervisor of internal auditing, Roger Pisha, served on a supervisory committee for MCT Federal Credit Union in 2009.

“(Pisha) was on the supervisory committee of the MCT Federal Credit Union during the period of time in question that money was flowing into and out of these accounts,” Astrove said. “At a minimum, he should have disclosed this conflict of interest to the parents, and preferably, should have recused himself and turned this all over to an external, outside auditor.”

Tofig said Pisha did not remove himself from MCPS’ investigation of Rock Terrace because the investigation centered on how the school staff handled funds as part of an educational program rather than investigating a bank or credit union.

Astrove said she is opposed to MCPS having any access to account record beyond what parents have already provided, but the school system needs to figure out how much money the students are owed and it get back to them.

“I have zero confidence in MCPS to come to a fair, full, and complete reconciliation of how much these children are owed,” Astrove said. “Only an independent, outside auditor should have access to these records.  The prosecutor, Hannah Gleason, specifically mentioned the possibility of having a certified fraud examiner review them, and that would be fine, but not MCPS people.  They already screwed up.”

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