The leader of a startup technology company and a former Harrisburg, Pa., School District official were charged last month with participating in a nearly $2 million kickback scheme in connection with a federally funded technology contract for the district, authorities say.

Ronald R. Morrett, president of Wormleyburg, Pa.-based EMO Communications, and John Henry Weaver, the district’s former information technology director, have agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy charges, make restitution, and cooperate in an ongoing investigation of the case, U.S. Attorney Thomas A. Marino said Dec. 8. They are expected to appear in court at a future date.

The two men allegedly agreed that Morrett, whose company was awarded a $6.9 million contract in 2000 to develop and install an information technology system for the school district, would make the payments to Weaver over a 13-month period, from April 2002 to May 2003.

Nearly 90 percent of the contract was funded directly through the eRate, the $2.25 billion-a-year federal program that provides discounts on telecommunications services to eligible schools and libraries.

According to court documents filed in the case, the two men and “other individuals” who were not named agreed that the payments would be funneled to Weaver, who was responsible for certifying that Morrett’s company completed the work, through third-party bank accounts.

The money for the kickbacks would have come through “any number” of sources contributing to Morrett’s income, including the federal eRate money, Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Carlson said.

The investigation was prompted when school officials discovered in June that 1,000 laptop computers that had been ordered as part of the project were never delivered, said Mayor Stephen Reed, who was given control over the academically and financially troubled district in late 2000.

Weaver and the vendor responded to inquiries about the missing laptops with answers that were “incomplete and extremely evasive,” Reed said.

Weaver, who had been employed with the district for 17 years, was initially suspended earlier this year and resigned soon afterward, Reed said.

School Superintendent Gerald Kohn said the administration “was and is very angry.”

“The scale of this is mind-boggling and upsetting,” Kohn said. “It means the children will have fewer computers than they were entitled to.”

Morrett and Weaver each face up to five years in prison. Federal authorities also are seeking the forfeiture of the kickbacks Weaver allegedly received, including the seizure of substitute assets such as two sport utility vehicles, a station wagon, a motorboat, seven real estate parcels, and an interest in a bar and cafe in Ocean City, Md.

Morrett’s attorney, Brian Perry, said that although Morrett accepted responsibility for his part in the alleged scheme, he also believed he was manipulated by Weaver.

“This is a classic example of somebody who makes a bad decision, and it snowballs,” Perry said. “Ron was in a startup company, and he thought this would be a black mark against him if he didn’t agree to do it.”

Weaver’s attorney, Gerald Lord, confirmed that his client has agreed to plead guilty and is cooperating with investigators, but declined to comment on the allegations against Weaver.

Links:

EMO Communications Inc.
http://www.emocomm.com

Harrisburg School District
http://www.hbgsd.k12.pa.us