The superintendent of the Tornillo Independent School District, Paul Vranish, benefitted by using his position to approve purchase of items that were not sanctioned by his contract, spent public money in a “reckless manner,” and submitted the same hotel invoice twice for reimbursement, according to a state audit.
The final investigative report from the Texas Education Agency notes financial lapses at the district and suggests at several points that Vranish may have violated numerous codes and laws.
The state agency examined $117,394 in reimbursements to Vranish and his wife, also employed by the district, in the 2011 fiscal year, finding $47,909 in questionable costs.
Several members of the district’s board of trustees and school system’s lawyer refute the state’s assertions.
"We are giving them feedback and expect everything to go away," said Jim Darnell, the attorney representing Vranish.
According to the state, which issued its final report Aug. 31, Vranish used travel for the district to earn frequent flier mileage points, then used those points for district travel.
“He then requests reimbursement for the miles used by submitting documents that show what that flight would have cost if the district had paid for a regular airline ticket, as well as the associated fees charged to use the frequent flier miles,” the report states. “Because the superintendent is charged with protecting the district’s assets and using them for the benefit of the district’s students, but instead used them in a reckless manner, he may be in violation” of several articles of the Texas Constitution.
Vranish declined to comment.
Among the other findings:
- “PMV Services sold a 50’ DLP HDTV to (the Tornillo school district) for $1,200 in June 2007. The superintendent provided additional documentation regarding the self-dealing but this transaction is still questionable because it does not appear to be an arm’s length transaction.” PMV Services is a company owned by Vranish. In an interview with Texas Watchdog earlier this year, Vranish explained he operates it part-time as a certified board trainer for school districts.
- Vranish “authorized a purchase order to purchase a cell phone for himself.” His contract provides that the district pay for his service, not his cell phone. Vranish also purchased a number of other tech items without the proper purchase authorization.
- Vranish submitted two parking tickets for reimbursement, one at Houston’s Hobby Airport and the other at the El Paso airport. The tickets were issued in relation to a Texas Association of School Boards convention in which all travelers, including Vranish, rode together in a rental car. “Therefore, the reimbursement is questionable,” the report notes.
- On several occasions, purchase orders were authorized after a purchase had already been made. Numerous items were shipped to Vranish’s home rather than his office, the report states.
- Several trips were taken without an explanation of what they were for, and trips were reimbursed before they were taken.
- Vranish charged the district $154 for camera repairs, an expense which "appears to be personal in nature.”
See TEA’s analysis of expenses here.
TEA concludes the report by demanding new policies at the school district outside El Paso on the state’s western border. Among them, that the district implement new financial controls. The district must hire a forensic auditor to examine the district’s reimbursements to Vranish and his wife, Marla, for the years 2006 through 2011. The district must implement new measures to ensure Vranish reimburses the district for all expenses and ceases using his personal credit card for district-related expenses.
Records obtained by Texas Watchdog show the district has continued to defend Vranish. Several trustees in a March 9 letter claimed Vranish’s use of a personal credit card “was well known to everyone.”
“…Every year, auditors make a call to a trustee, private from the superintendent, to ask about board member knowledge of operations and possible fraud problems,” states the letter, which is not signed by the entire board but includes several past members.
Texas Watchdog reviewed a letter from Douglas Little, of the local accounting firm Little, Roberts and Company, refuting many of the TEA findings. The letter was written at the request of Darnell, Vranish’s lawyer.
Darnell calls the investigation and its reports “a crock of baloney.”
"I had a CPA go through the report, and he responds to every single one of the allegations," Darnell said. "We've got responses to every single one of the things they found. The report is sloppy to the point of incompentent."
In the April 23 letter, Little disputes the charges for the cell phone, saying the auditors ‘offer no argument why these items are inappropriate for Mr. Vranish’s job duties.”
He calls the auditor's questions about money Vranish spent to repair a snowmobile an “egregious overreach by the auditor” and says that a snowmobile – a 2007 Polaris - was damaged during a 2008 school trip to Colorado and that a repaid bill of $1,210.33 was put on Vranish’s expense report.
“Mr. Vranish owns two snowmobiles, a 1992 and a 1993 model which clearly do not match the description on the repair receipts,” he writes.
The school district’s lawyer, S. Anthony Safi, argued in an April 23 letter to the TEA that the selling of frequent flier tickets for district-related travel “actually resulted in savings to the district.”
Safi also questioned the necessity of a forensic audit, calling it a “very significant, unbudgeted expense” that “should be left to the discretion of the school board.”
Safi did not return a call. Rachel Avila, president of the Tornillo shcool district board, did not return an email.
The TEA ordered the audit earlier this year after receiving complaints from several members of the school board, which is divided 3-3 in its support of Vranish.
Vranish resigned in January shortly after the news of the audit broke and received a $276,000 payout, which one report attributed to his contractual arrangement with the district. He’s still running the district, though, since he specified his last day would be June 28, 2013.
Vranish has previously left a top job with a school district amid controversy over expenses. He resigned in 1999 from the Lone Oak Independent School District in East Texas after an investigation questioning the district’s financial practices.
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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