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Thursday, August 21, 2014         

LEE CATALUNA


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School thieves' punishment little more than detention

By Lee Cataluna

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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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