School Workers Who Tidy Classrooms Not So Squeaky Clean, Investigators Say
NEW YORK CITY — The city wants them to clean up their acts.
Three employees who keep city schools spic and span were investigated over the last two years for alleged dirty deeds, including using work funds for meals at Peter Luger Steakhouse, shaking down teachers for Christmas bonuses and pilfering money from an empty classroom, according to reports obtained by DNAinfo New York.
Brooklyn High School of the Arts custodian Llaird O'Neil, 58, was accused of chowing down at the porterhouse mecca in Williamsburg and going on a vacation to Honduras — with funds from his Department of Education Chase bank account.
School custodians receive accounts with budgets to pay their employees and order supplies. A report by the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for city schools says that in late 2008 O'Neil opened a $10,000 line of credit on his account.
Between December 2008 and May 2009, O'Neil used $6,702 from the credit for purchases at Fortunoff's department store, Sunglass Hut, Coach and Wolfgang Steakhouse, the report says. The credit also allegedly funded the Honduras trip, which was arranged by a travel agency specializing in scuba-diving getaways.
The report says O'Neill also withdrew $3,788 from the account at ATMs in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas.
The custodian told investigators he opened the line of credit to cover shortfalls in his budget because of delays in DOE reimbursements. He explained that when his staff worked extra hours, the DOE would take 28 to 56 days to cut a check for the overtime.
O'Neil admitted he made personal charges with the credit line but claimed he paid back all purchases and never co-mingled expenses — a violation of the custodian union's contract.
"I figured that as long as the overdraft is my money in there, I could use the overdraft money as I wanted as long as I paid it back," he said, according to the report.
Investigators recommended in 2010 that O'Neil be disciplined, but the DOE did not comment on whether it took any action against him.
O'Neil told DNAinfo New York that he had a squeaky clean career. He added that he spent seven months in a rubber room over the allegations but was ultimately exonerated.
"I retired with full honors and all charges from the Board of Ed were dropped," he said, noting that the paid time spent in the rubber increased his pension.
O'Neil added that he opened the credit line to keep his workers from striking.
"What I did was I took out a line of credit to cover myself so that when payday came around and there was a snowstorm, I didn't have to wait two months to get the money back from the [DOE]," he said.
Another investigators' report says that in February 2012, officials at P.S. 157 in Bedford-Stuyvesant complained that cleaner Wayne Fuller had harassed teachers who did not give him Christmas tips or loans by refusing to tidy their areas.
Investigators interviewed an unnamed teacher who said she had given Fuller money for two years because she felt "pressured." The teacher added that when she started at P.S. 157, she didn't give him a holiday bonus and, in turn, he never took out her trash or cleaned her classroom.
Another unnamed teacher told investigators that Fuller hit her up on occasion for car fare, as well rent and lunch money. She said she also gave Fuller small cash gifts for Christmas and Father's Day.
Fuller told investigators that he had borrowed money from teachers but always repaid the loans.
"What's it to borrow $5, $10 or $20 from a co-worker 'til payday?" he asked investigators, according to the report.
When questioned if the teachers willingly gave him money, he allegedly responded, "I'm not stupid enough to shake people down."
Fuller also denied that he refused to do a cleaning assignment if a teacher didn't fork over a bonus.
The investigators recommended that the DOE discipline Fuller.
Cleaners are hired by a school's custodian. A message left for P.S. 157's custodian was not returned.
In another report, investigators said in March 2012 a vigilant teacher at P.S. 49 in the Bronx set up a sting operation after $10 disappeared from an autism donation envelope in an empty classroom. To catch the crook, the teacher set up a spy camera in the classroom, then left $5 in an envelope as bait.
Three days later, the camera caught cleaner Roberto Soto wearing gloves and swiping the money, the report says.
Soto denied taking the cash — even when confronted with the video.
Investigators recommended that the DOE fire him. A message left for P.S. 49's custodian was not returned.