Thursday, February 5, 2015

BISD's Lambert says she is 'absolutely not guilty'

UPDATE: Patricia Lambert and Victoria Stweard have entered not guilty pleas to all charges against them. Both are free on $25,000 bonds.

A grand jury's indictments Wednesday of a former Beaumont ISD assistant superintendent and a former high-school teacher brought the number of people charged with federal crimes to 10 in an ongoing probe into a culture of corruption that plagued the district for years.

Former Assistant Super-intendent Patricia Adams Lambert embezzled more than $750,000 in BISD money by diverting business to a relative, using a high school booster club as a slush fund and stealing from students dual-enrolled in higher-education programs, federal prosecutors alleged Wednesday.

Along with former Central High School teacher Victoria Steward, Lambert also is accused of changing students' answers on high-stakes standardized tests over the course of five school years, affecting an entire generation of Central High students, U.S. Attorney John M. Bales said.

A grand jury yesterday hit Lambert on four counts of fraud on a program receiving federal funds and one count of conspiracy. Steward also was indicted on one count of conspiracy.

A fraud conviction carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. The maximum punishment for conspiracy is five years.

Court appearance

Lambert and Steward are scheduled to appear separately in federal court before Magistrate Judge Keith Giblin at 10:15 a.m. today.

Alphonso Anderson, a Houston-based attorney representing Lambert, did not respond to a message left at his office Wednesday afternoon.

Lake Charles-based attorney Todd S. Clemons, who is representing Steward, said his client has maintained her innocence for the year that he has represented her.

"(Steward) is not guilty of that one (charge), and I am going to vigorously defend her," Clemons said.

Steward, 31, is currently a high school teacher in Lake Charles, Clemons said.

Their indictments are the latest salvo in an ongoing investigation into BISD corruption that previously resulted in convictions of fraud against the district's highest-ranking financial officers, the president of West Brook High's booster club and a former warehouseman, his wife and a friend.

Criminal proceedings are pending in state court in the cases of former BISD contract electrician Calvin Walker and former purchasing agent Naomi Lawrence-Lee, who were indicted for felony theft and fraud, respectively, last year.

The Texas Education Agency in July 2014 replaced BISD's elected board of trustees with an appointed board of managers, who subsequently ousted Superintendent Timothy Chargois amid the budget crisis they inherited.

Lambert's rise and fall

Lambert, 60, retired from BISD last April amid allegations she took advantage of lax oversight to funnel hundreds of thousands to companies started by her son through no-bid purchases.

Federal prosecutors secured a fraud indictment on those allegations, asserting that Lambert assisted a "close family member" in becoming an authorized vendor. Lambert then directed that all printing work be done through two companies - "Designergy" and "Printica" - owned by that family member, the indictment says.

The relative, who was the vendors' only employee, would order the work done by local companies and mark up the price by as much as 300 percent before invoicing the district, the indictment says. In total, the scheme netted $480,000, prosecutors said.

Before joining BISD as a teacher in 2002, Lambert was convicted of extortion in Louisiana after accusations that she orchestrated a kick-back scheme with educators for whom she secured pay raises and job promotions, Jefferson County District Attorney Bob Wortham said.
Lambert rose rapidly through BISD's ranks. Two months after she was hired as a teacher, she became assistant principal at Vincent Middle School. Two years later, she was promoted to principal and assigned to French Middle School. In 2006, she was assigned to Central, and in 2012, she was promoted to assistant superintendent.

While at Central, Lambert took control of the school's booster club fund. She wrote checks from the club payable to her children, to cash and to herself, all of which were deposited in her personal account, the indictment alleges.

To build the club's fund, which was not subject to BISD oversight or auditing, Lambert diverted money from other accounts to the booster club, according to the charges. Other sources included fees students paid for transcripts and donations from private individuals or businesses for scholarship purposes, the indictment says.

Lambert is further accused of diverting fees students paid to enroll in dual-enrollment programs offered by Lamar Institute of Technology and the University of Texas. Aside from sending that money to the booster club fund, Lambert is accused of increasing the price of enrollment in the UT program from $275 per student per year to $1,000 per student per year, the indictment says.

"Additionally, Lambert often failed to reimburse BISD for the tuition costs," the indictment says.

Test score allegations

Those accusations are separate from charges that Lambert, with Steward, changed students' answers on state tests over a five-year period.

Lambert directed teachers to improve test scores "by any means necessary," the indictment says. Lambert organized meetings in which she and subordinates would change the answers, according to the indictment.

The scores are used to judge educators and school performance as well as to determine whether students can pass a grade,

Steward "did a large portion of the actual test changing" and recruited other teachers to assist her, the indictment says. Steward is accused of providing teachers with stacks of tests and answer keys. The teachers would erase incorrect answers and replace them with the correct responses, according to the indictment.

In 2013, a parent filed a lawsuit that claimed her child was unfairly denied becoming class salutatorian because Lambert manipulated grades. Lambert responded by saying the parent, a former Central High principal, had also manipulated grades.

Bales, the chief federal prosecutor, described grade and score manipulation as a "systemic" problem at Central High. Other teachers involved with changing the test scores are not likely to be prosecuted, he said, because he feels Lambert and Steward were "the decision-makers."

Investigation continues

A federal-state-local task force headed by Bales' office is continuing to investigate white-collar crime in BISD and elsewhere, but the chief prosecutor said he could not provide a list of targets or a timeline for more charges.

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEta Culbertson said the state's investigation into BISD cheating allegations is ongoing. Generally, the state will not complete an investigation until legal proceedings are complete, she said.

Typically, in cases of teacher-involved cheating on standardized tests, the state will attempt to revoke a teacher's certification through the state board for educator certification, Culbertson said.

BISD spokesman Ron Reynolds said the current administration will cooperate with any further investigations into potential misconduct.

"BISD wants to assure parents that the educational programs for students will not be impacted throughout the pendency or outcome of the investigation," Reynolds said

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