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School thieves' punishment little more than detention

By Lee Cataluna


Get caught speeding in a school zone and you face a higher penalty -- a fine of up to $250. A conviction for selling drugs near a school also carries a greater punishment than selling drugs on just any non-school street corner. Break a classroom window and lift a bunch of old computers from a public school and you'll probably get some time in jail. But if you work at a public school and, in the course of your job, steal thousands of dollars that should be going to educate the kids, no worries. Chances are you'll serve less time in jail than Rod Tam.

In the last year, there have been three mind-blowing cases of Department of Education employees accused of stealing large amounts of money from their schools.

Pearl Ridge Elementary School secretary Denise Hayashi was arrested in January and accused of stealing $68,870 from the school. Three months ago, she made a plea agreement with the state and got five years' probation. Oh, and she had to do 1,500 hours of community service and pay back the money.

Last December, a secretary from Lehua Elementary in Pearl City, Janel Echiberi, was sentenced to 450 hours of community service after stealing $13,000 from school fundraisers and donations. Echiberi's theft was particularly brazen in that she didn't just take money, she used a Sam's Club credit card issued to the school to buy tires for her car, a high-def TV, booze and a king-size bed.

She will have the opportunity to have the case erased from her record, though, because, as her attorney put it, "From the beginning, she regretted what she did." (Actually, no. In the beginning, she stole money from the school, and after she got caught, she regretted it.)

Most recently, Warren Harada, who worked as a business manager at Waipahu High School, was arrested and charged with theft and money laundering for allegedly stealing almost $500,000 from the school over a period of five years. He is accused of purchasing high-end camera equipment for the school, returning it to the dealer and then pocketing the refund checks.

There has been discussion in the community about having to institute greater accountability and safeguards within the school system, which leads to hand-wringing and sighing about all the budget cuts that have made financial audits and internal oversight difficult to come by. But even without nit-comb accounting, wouldn't tens of thousands (or, in the Waipahu case, hundreds of thousands) of dollars be noticed? Get some eagle-eyed Safeway store detectives in there because some major clues are going unnoticed.

There might also be a discussion about the ramifications of stealing from a school. Perhaps the penalty should be greater than just "oh da shame," because right now, it sure looks like you can do the crime and do no time.

Lee Cataluna can be reached at lcataluna@staradvertiser.com.

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SharonOnKauai wrote:
When you bite the hand that feeds you a few swift kicks in your butt should not surprise you. Why am I not surprised at the lack of serious punishment such as a few years in jail? Because our jails are filled with "real" criminals? Repeat offenders? Nope. The repeats make headlines almost daily. Even double digit felony convictions won't keep one incarcerated for very long. There is need for serious reform of our punishment system for those who chose to offend the rest of their community. What is this type of punishment telling students? Tells me one can make extra cash working for the DOE if one doesn't get too greedy. Warren made an extra $100k a year for 5 years. DOE workers don't need a salary with benefits. They need a gang with muscle to protect their interests'. They way the courts hand out penalties for crimes committed Byron U. will be out soon. Maybe all these DOE guys related?
on November 13,2011 | 07:23AM
allie wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on November 13,2011 | 07:34AM
cojef wrote:
You need more than an audit! Heads should roll at the DOE headquarters for allowing these crimes to occur in an learning environment. This sends a message to the young students, crime pays if it is done in selectively, in an educational environment. The impressionable young are being exposed to crime an punishment, Hawaiian style, not mainland penal code, "you do the crime, you go to jail".
on November 13,2011 | 11:16AM
richw66 wrote:
This is one of the best articles Lee has writen....she is right on this one.
on November 13,2011 | 09:26AM
KekoaBradshaw wrote:
You're right! Good job, Lee!
on November 14,2011 | 12:20PM
kulanakai wrote:
Principals should never have access to that much money. They don't know how to take care of a budget that big.
on November 13,2011 | 09:40PM
silvangold wrote:
Its about time somebody says exactly what/how you said it - in writing. It soulds as bad as it really is, but somehow the people who have the power don't think so! THEY need to be 'dealt' (some kind of punishment) with in some way too for goodness sakes!
on November 14,2011 | 09:55AM
KekoaBradshaw wrote:
One thing Lee Catalouna missed in this column---what about the proectuing attorneys in these cases? After all, the plea deals for Echiberi and Hayashi HAD to have been approved by the Prosecuting Attorney and the defense attorney for the Judge to agree. And Lee, I agree with you---"oh, da shame" isn't effective any longer as a deterrent or a punishment. I was shocked when I read that 61-year-old Warren Hayashi had been charged with embezzling $500,000 . I would have thought that a 61-year-old AJA would still be concerned about bringing shame onto his family name. Guess he wasn't
on November 14,2011 | 12:31PM
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