NBC10.com - Daralene Jones
New outrage at a school board meeting in Coatesville as concerned citizens call for the school board solicitor to step down amid a wide-reaching criminal investigation. NBC10's Daralene Jones was there for the fiery meeting.
While Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan did not attend the Coatesville School Board's public meeting Tuesday night, his public comments regarding the school district as well as the solicitor were the main focus of discussion.
On Monday, Hogan accused the district of delaying the investigation of two former administrators accused of sending racist text messages about students and skimming district cash.
“There is an easy way and a hard way for the Coatesville Area School District to deal with this investigation,” said Hogan in a written release. “The CASD Board can cooperate fully, help to discover any crimes, and allow the truth to be exposed. Or the CASD Board can fight the investigation, attempt to cover up any misconduct and try to hide truth.”
Last month, the Coatesville school board accepted the resignations of Coatesville Area School District Superintendent Richard Como and Director of Athletics and Activities Jim Donato. Como and Donato resigned from their posts after an IT staffer who was fixing Donato’s phone discovered text messages containing the N-word.
The messages, first reported by The Daily Local of West Chester and later obtained by NBC10 Philadelphia, were uncovered by the district IT employee before the start of the school year, according to officials. That employee brought it to the attention of the school board on Aug. 18, prompting Como and Donato to later resign. Chester County prosecutors eventually launched a criminal investigation and asked that more than 100 pages of transcripts be turned over to detectives.
"All should just have whatever first names they want...then last name is N-----! Leroy N-----, Preacher N-----, Night train n-----, Clarence n-----, Latoya n-----, Thelma n----- and so on," read one message sent from Donato’s phone on the night of June 4.
"Great idea! Joe n----- bill n----- snake n----- got a nice ring to it," Como replied.
“hahahahahahahahahahahaha could have whole homerooms of N-----,” came another message from Como’s phone.
“hahahahahahahahaha! Will N----- report to office, pardon the interruption but will N----- report to nurses office. N----- to lunch now!” Donato said.
Amid the racist messages were also conversations about district money.
"Gonna give them til Aug 1st to raise coin still want district to give at least 40k on top," wrote Donato in one of the texts.
Hogan told NBC10 Philadelphia that prosecutors have spent several months looking at whether Como and Donato were skimming district cash.
Sources say concerned parents went to prosecutors four months ago asking officials to look into potential financial wrongdoing in the district. The discovery of the text messages came months later.
"There are references in these texts about financial improprieties of missing money," Hogan said.
Hogan also said an electronic forensics team was deployed to look for additional evidence, but would not elaborate further citing the on-going investigation.
On Monday, Hogan announced that the Coatesville Area School District has not cooperated with their investigation. Hogan accused the school board as well as its solicitor, James Ellison, of trying to “obstruct, evade, and delay” the criminal investigation.
“They have delayed or refused to produce basic documents,” Hogan said. “They have attempted to block CASD employees and representatives from providing information to the Commonwealth. They have taken steps to harass, intimidate and bully the whistleblowers who initially reported wrongdoing. None of this conduct will derail this investigation but it gives the appearance to all involved that CASD and its Solicitor have no interest in allowing the truth to be uncovered.”
Hogan also announced that Ellison as well as his law firm are now being investigated for potential criminal conduct. Questions surround whether Ellison overbilled or illegally billed the district for services going back to 2010, during which his law firm collected $4 million in legal fees.
“This investigation includes the issues of obstruction of justice and whether CASD and Coatesville taxpayers were defrauded through the payment of improper legal fees and expenses," Hogan said. "The Solicitor and his law firm have billed CASD for millions of dollars of legal fees over the past few years.”
Hogan says the commonwealth will ask for the school board to produce all of the documents regarding legal bills and expenses paid to Ellison and his firm. He also stated that while the investigation is taking place, Ellison’s firm will not be allowed to represent the school district due to a conflict of interest.
“CASD must appoint independent counsel who can assist CASD and Coatesville taxpayers in uncovering any unlawful conduct that took place in the School District,” Hogan said.
Ellison denied allegations of employee intimidation and possible tampering last month while speaking to the Delaware County Times. Ellison attended Tuesday's public meeting and faced angry residents who called for his resignation.
"Mr. Ellison should be relieved of duty immediately," said one attendee.
Ellison refused to comment on the allegations against him when confronted by NBC10.
Neil Campbell, the Coatesville School Board President, also responded to Hogan's allegations.
"We did not realize the District Attorney felt that information wasn't turned over fast enough," Campbell said. "We turned over the cell phone records and paperwork that he requested. We look forward to providing whatever else he requires and look forward to getting this behind us and moving forward for the students."
Acting Assistant Superintendent Dr. Teresa Powell, one of two employees who discovered the text messages, publicly stated during a meeting on October 8 that she was offered a promotion if she would remain quiet about the texts. Powell also claimed the acting superintendent, Angelo Romaniello, was the mystery “third texter” who took part in inappropriate exchanges with Como and Donato. Finally, Powell claimed tens of thousands of dollars was missing, related to football team rings.
Romaniello denied the accusations against him when confronted by NBC10's George Spencer after the October 8 meeting.
With the new allegations made by Hogan, there is now even more pressure for Romaniello and other school board members to step down.
"If ya'll don't have nothing to hide and he's [[Romaniello]] taking the fall, he ain't gonna take it by himself," said Ron Suber of Coatesvile. "A lot of ya'll are going down with him."
Many in the community were also angered that the board didn’t fire Como and Donato even though it would have led to a lengthy and costly legal battle.
The district said it started the process to fire the pair once the text messages were found, but that the men resigned pending the board's approval. During the October 9 meeting, the board admitted Como was paid $70,000 in unused sick and vacation time before leaving.
“Sometimes the best way to get out of a hole is to put down the shovel and stop digging,” Hogan said. “At the end of the day, the Commonwealth will discover the full truth. The only question is whether the CASD Board will help or hinder the process.”
While many of the board members insist they did nothing wrong, many in the community say they won't be satisfied until they see new faces on the panel during the next school board meeting.
"The longer this goes on, the guiltier they look," said one attendee. "No one in this district wants you to represent us any longer. How many more times do we have to come here and tell you this?"