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The only way for the state to recoup money from a Flushing-based education company is to give it more.
The Queens district attorney is in possession of an audit released last Thursday from the state’s top fiscal watchdog, showing Bilingual SEIT & Preschool Inc. used $1.5 million in city tax dollars to pay for inflated salaries, pricey children’s furniture and a host of other unauthorized expenses.
The for-profit organization received about $23 million from the city over two years to provide about 700 toddlers who have learning disabilities with free special education services, according to the audit. But the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found the educators charged the city for services the school either never provided or for items that had no place in the classroom.
“Special education services are critical for thousands of children and every tax dollar meant for them should be spent on them,” the state comptroller said in a statement. “Sadly, my auditors have found that has not been the case at Bilingual SEIT & Preschool. As we have seen in several audits of special education providers, taxpayers are footing the bill for expenses they shouldn’t have to cover, no-show jobs and other perks. This cannot continue.”
The executive director of the school billed the state for a number of personal expenses, the audit showed, including a children’s bedroom set that featured two white, antique-finished night stands listed at $1,006 and two bedroom lamps with petite silk shades that cost $261. Cheon Park also used $186,819 in tax-dollar funds to rent three buildings unrelated to the school, $60,280 for leases on three cars and $22,347 in interest expenses for his ex-wife’s loan.
Cheon Park also listed his former wife as the assistant executive director, who raked in a salary of $369,081 over a two-year period. But the audit found that she actually served the function of a payroll specialist and that she was overpaid $107,380, the audit said.
Park failed to accurately report his and his ex-wife’s income, the audit stated. Instead of listing themselves as employees, for the majority of their income they instead billed their salaries as if they were independent contractors represented by shell companies they created, the audit said. That allowed them to file taxes with fewer exemptions, and when DiNapoli’s office questioned Park, he said the falsified income reports were an attempt to keep more cash on hand to bay bills, according to the report.
The 23-page report also detailed $233,368 paid to 26 employees, even though there were no records to show the employees actually worked, according to the audit. In 12 instances, teachers were paid for working 16-hour days, even though no documentation was available to support this claim, the audit said.
The money doled out to Bilingual is determined by a tuition rate set by the state Department of Education, although the city Department of Education actually foots the bills.
DiNapoli recommended the DOE recoup the cash, but in a response to the audit, state DOE official Sharon Cates-Williams said that the government cannot get back the money. The agency can only charge the school more tuition to do business with the city.
A source familiar with education policy said special needs schools, like Bilingual, are hard to come by, and since the amount of money was a small percentage of the total amount it received, ending business with it might not be the best course of action.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4566.
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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