EL PASO — Several federal charges, including conspiracy to retaliate against a witness, were filed Wednesday against five veteran El Paso Independent School District educators, who were arrested by the FBI earlier in the day in connection with an alleged conspiracy to defraud the state and federal accountability programs.
Former EPISD associate superintendent Damon Murphy, former Austin High School Principal John Tanner; former Austin High assistant principals Diane Thomas and Mark Tegmeyer; and Nancy Love, who previously was assistant principal of discipline and attendance at Austin High School, were indicted by a federal grand jury for their alleged roles in the scandal.
Murphy, Tanner and Tegmeyer were charged with one count each of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and aiding and abetting mail fraud.
Tanner, Tegmeyer, Thomas and Love were also charged with conspiracy to retaliate against a witness.
Love is facing an additional charge of making a false declaration before a grand jury.
A copy of the indictment filed against the five suspects was not available Wednesday evening.
The five suspects made their initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Miguel A. Torres during which they were read the charges filed against and their bond was set.
Bond for Murphy, 50, Tanner, 52, Tegmeyer, 51, and Love, 48, was set at $30,000, while the bond for Thomas, 53, is $20,000.
All the defendants were told not to have any contact with their co-defendants, potential witnesses or any of the victims, although one exception was made for Love.
Judge Torres allowed that Love could continue to talk with her son Richard Allen Love, who court officials said is cooperating with the FBI’s investigation. Love was ordered not to discuss the ongoing case.
“These newly charged EPISD administrators engaged in criminal conduct and brazen efforts to manipulate testing populations, graduation rates, and attendance figures,” FBI El Paso Division Special Agent in Charge Douglas E. Lindquist said in a statement. “The message should be loud and clear that the FBI, American people, and citizens of El Paso will not tolerate the manipulation and corruption of our public educational system.”
The statement continued, “The involved teachers and administrators were trusted with educating and looking out for the best interests of students, as opposed to spending countless hours scheming and devising ways to defraud educational standards.”
Love and Tegmeyer are the only defendants currently working in El Paso County schools. Love is at Silva and Tegmeyer is currently an assistant principal at Horizon Middle School in the Clint school district. Tegmeyer was placed on administrative leave on Monday after Clint Independent School District officials were notified of his indictment, district officials said in a statement.
“At this time, Mr. Tegmeyer has been placed on administrative leave with pay pending the disposition of the criminal charges against him,” the statement said.
Love’s employment status was not immediately available Wednesday.
Murphy and Tanner have long maintained their innocence.
“They (the FBI) are trying to manufacture a situation that didn't occur," Murphy said in 2011 interview with the El Paso Times. "They really are and it has all of our careers on the line."
Tanner survived an initial attempt to fire him in 2013, but the EPISD Board of Managers fired him and Thomas in 2014.
An independent hearing examiner found evidence that Thomas, an Austin employee for 10 years and an assistant principal for two years, directed staff members to falsify enrollment data to have two teachers' positions "surplused."
The two teachers were frequently discussed on campus as probable witnesses for internal and FBI investigations of the EPISD, the report said.
"An inference against Thomas that she was in a conspiracy with Tanner regarding (an auto shop teacher) can be made," the hearing examiner's report said.
The five suspects were walked by FBI agents Wednesday morning from the old federal courthouse, which houses federal pretrial services, to the nearby El Paso County Jail. Most stayed silent during the walk, but Murphy and Tanner made brief comments to the media.
“I just wish everyone well in El Paso and we will get through this," said Murphy, who resigned as Canutillo superintendent in 2012 as the school board prepared to fire him.
“I can’t wait until I am able to (discuss the arrest), but I can’t right now,” Tanner said.
FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Keith Byers said the agency is still investigating the alleged cheating scam, but declined to discuss how many more people are under investigation.
“At this point and time, I am not going to provide a number,” Byers said. “As you all saw today, five people were charged and indicted. Two people previously have been charged and convicted. What I’ll say again is that is an on-going investigation and not yet final.”
Until Wednesday, only two other former administrators had been charged in the cheating scheme, which sought to falsely boost EPISD's accountability scores by a variety of means, including preventing "limited English proficiency" students from taking the state standardized high school test.
The accountability fraud was first detailed in a series of 2012 stories in the El Paso Times.
Some students were wrongfully held back or promoted so they wouldn't take the state test in 10th grade, artificially inflating the EPISD's scores to meet federal accountability standards, according to a 2012 El Paso Times investigation. Other students were discouraged from enrolling in school or denied admittance outright.
The goal was to prevent some students from taking the accountability test used by Texas to measure progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The FBI has been investigating the cheating scheme allegations since December 2010. Until Wednesday, former EPISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia and Priority Schools Division administrator Myrna Gamboa had been the only ones charged as a result of the investigation.
Bowie High School counselor Patricia Scott discovered in summer 2009 that 77 sophomores' transcripts had been altered. She showed them to a supervisor, and later to García.
The EPISD launched an internal audit that verified that the transcripts had been altered, but officials didn't make it public and denied wrongdoing. Former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, was often the only public official to question the EPISD's test scores, alleging the district had cheated.
The El Paso Times investigated the accusations and uncovered the audit in April 2012 after filing a public records request.
García ultimately pleaded guilty in June 2012 to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud for cheating on test scores and for a $450,000 no-bid contract given to his mistress.
He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in 2012, although his sentence was later shortened because he participated in an alcohol and drug counseling program. He was released from federal custody Oct. 31, 2014.
Gamboa pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States in October 2014. She was sentenced to five years probation in January 2015.
Gamboa's charging document listed Murphy and former EPISD Assistant Superintendent James Anderson as co-conspirators in the cheating scheme. Anderson has not been charged with any crime. He resigned in April 2013.
Murphy oversaw EPISD's Priority Schools Division, which included the district's lowest-performing schools. He was named superintendent in Canutillo in 2010, and resigned in December 2012 after an internal investigation found evidence of similar cheating in Canutillo.
The Texas Education Agency also continues to investigate some administrators linked to the scheme, evaluating whether to strip them of their educator licenses.
The state in 2014 filed an action to strip a number of EPISD administrators of their education credentials, including Murphy, Anderson, former Interim Superintendent Terri Jordan, former Priority Schools Division administrators Maria Flores and Gamboa, former director of guidance services Kathleen Ortega, former Bowie Principal Jesus Chavez, former Bowie Assistant Principals Anna Luisa Kell and Johnnie Vega, former director of bilingual education Norma Regina "Gina" Oaxacaand current Burges High School Assistant Principal Juan Manuel Duran, who was previously an assistant principal at Bowie.
The TEA later added Priscilla Terrazas, a former Priority Schools Division director, and Vanessa Foreman, former Title I schools director, to the list.
Only Duran still works for the district.
So far, Gamboa, Jordan, Murphy and Vega have voluntarily surrendered their educators' certifications. Ortega and the State Board for Educator Certification agreed to an inscribed reprimand, meaning she is still certified but the reprimand will appear on her certificate.
A public hearing will be held regarding several educators' credentials this summer.
EPISD's current leadership, which was put in place well after the alleged scheme to defraud accountability measures, said the charges can help the district move past years of scandal.
"Today's actions by the FBI further places EPISD on a path to recovery after years of uncertainty. We have and continue to work with the authorities to make sure that any wrongdoing that happened within the District is made right," Superintendent Juan Cabrera said. "I want to reassure parents that the EPISD of today is a district where ethics and strong moral character are the
driving force toward student success. We will not stand for anything else than that, and anyone who is unwilling to follow these standards does not belong anywhere near our
School board President Dori Fenenbock said: "EPISD has worked hard to mend its relationship with the students, parents and taxpayers of the district. The actions today by the FBI allow us to further put this incident behind us. But it also allows us continue to have conversations amongst one another and with the public about how we can best deal with our unfortunate recent
history. We will continue the great work our current administration and school staff are doing to improve student achievement in an ethical and appropriate manner."
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