A current Broward County Public Schools employee inappropriately used more than $90,000 in taxpayer money to buy computer equipment and gift cards for himself and colleagues while helping to manage a computer science training project for the Florida Department of Education, a report released last month by the department’s inspector general concluded.
Justin Feller resigned his state government job last August while the department’s investigation was ongoing, and he rejoined his former employer, Broward County Public Schools, where he currently works as a computer science instructional facilitator, the report states.
The Department of Education has referred the matter to the Florida Commission on Ethics for possible sanctions. The department notified Broward Schools about the report and its findings in the first week of January, a month after the report was released.
“Our office is not able to comment on the state’s investigation,” the district said in a statement Friday.
Feller repeatedly refused to cooperate in the investigation, according to the inspector general report, which found he was “insubordinate when he disobeyed a directive” to cooperate while he was still with the department. He did not respond to the Herald/Times requests for comment.
The investigation into Feller’s actions began last July when a department official raised concerns that Feller appeared to be buying “excessive computer equipment” without approval or the knowledge of management using funds that were part of a $10 million grant approved by the Legislature.
Investigators found that Feller’s colleagues, Kenneth Edwards, Daniel Ring and Katrina Figgett, acted inappropriately by accepting VISA gift cards totaling $500 in their names and signing a non-disclosure agreement with LEGO so they could get an early look at educational toys that were not on the market yet. Feller ordered seven VISA gift cards totaling $1,000 for himself.
“As a result of this investigation’s conclusion and recommendation, appropriate steps were taken immediately and these employees are no longer employed by FDOE,” department spokesman Jared Ochs said in a statement after the Herald/Times obtained the inspector general’s report through a public records request. The report was first reported by Florida Politics.
The funds that were used were meant to help K-12 classroom teachers earn certificates in computer science, pay fees related to exams and assist in the development of computer science classroom instruction.
Toys, ‘Fathead’ stickers and a pricey camera
While working for the department, Feller was part of a four-person team in the Bureau of Standards and Instructional Support. A main responsibility of his was managing the computer science certification project and serving as a contract manager for the grant program.
Feller did not cooperate with the department’s inspector general investigation, even when he was still a department employee and his supervisor directed him to comply and address the allegations against him, according to the report.
But interviews and records revealed that Feller would frequently order equipment in quantities of four, provided other employees in his team with laptops valued at more than $2,000 that the employees accepted and used, and ordered and received an “expensive camera” that he said would be used to photograph training. A co-worker told investigators the camera was for Feller’s wife.
Feller also ordered $1,000 in gift cards for himself and $500 gift cards for each of his team members. Edwards and Ring testified they spent the money on games and software for the Oculus virtual reality headsets to learn how to operate the headsets for training, even though they had not been instructed or prepared to lead computer science training yet.
Figgett said she never used the gift cards and returned them with the full balance remaining. She also testified that Feller told her he used his gift cards and that he did not keep receipts for what he purchased, which is why he wrote a $705 check to reimburse the money.
Ring testified that he believed Feller was purchasing gifts with his gift cards including a large “Fathead” sticker as a farewell present to the office.
After doing an inventory of the items Feller bought, investigators found that the value of the equipment exceeded $90,000. Items worth more than $9,000 were either depleted or missing, investigators found. Figgett, Ring and Edwards admitted to having 3D printers at their homes. Edwards and Ring said they attempted to use the printers, but they were unsuccessful because they were not trained to use them.
The North East Florida Educational Consortium, an educational service agency that collaborates with the state, was a main point of contact for the purchases made by Feller.
“NEFEC advised, at times, it became challenging to keep up with the volume of CS (Computer Science) equipment requested by Feller,” the report states.
The four employees were also found to have violated department rules by signing a non-disclosure agreement with LEGO. The employees used the department’s Tallahassee office address and their titles, without the knowledge of the department’s legal department.
“It didn’t seem that big a deal to me,” Figgett testified. “It was for a piece of educational thing — it was for educational stuff that was literally coming out in a couple of weeks and they just wanted to make sure we weren’t going to tell anybody about it.”
The inspector general’s report marks the second time in a month that the department has found several employees engaged in misconduct that has led to resignations.
Last month, an inspector general’s report found two members of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s leadership team and a member of the State Board of Education created a company to compete in a bid to help the struggling Jefferson County Schools.
Corcoran asked the board member, Andy Tuck, and one of the members of the leadership team, Melissa Ramsey, to resign. The third member, Senior Chancellor Jacob Oliva, was cleared of wrongdoing. Oliva’s role in the bidding process was a point of contention when he was interviewed as a top candidate to lead the Miami-Dade County School District, a post that he did not get.
The Herald/Times found that the department was also trying to steer the Jefferson County contract to a politically connected vendor, but the department’s inspector general did not investigate the matter.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief inspector general is reviewing the handling of the bid-rigging probe at the department.
Six Democratic members of Congress from Florida last week wrote to the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general asking to look into the issue because the department has tried to use federal coronavirus relief dollars to pay the consultants.