State auditor alleges Norfolk school official provided falsified documents in a grant request

By: - August 3, 2023 3:21 pm
state auditor

The Nebraska State Auditor’s Office is located in the State Capitol. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comments from Bill Robinson’s attorney.

LINCOLN — The Nebraska State Auditor’s Office, in a Thursday report, alleged that a Norfolk, Nebraska, school official provided falsified documents in efforts to obtain a grant that was no longer available.

The report alleges that Bill Robinson, associate superintendent of Norfolk Public Schools, submitted a series of falsified documents this spring to the Nebraska Department of Education regarding a federal reimbursement grant for services at Little Panthers Preschool in Norfolk.

State Auditor Mike Foley said the documents believed to be falsified constitute public records, which he said make the alleged wrongdoing criminal and “particularly disgusting.”

“It is so important for public officials to remember that their actions reflect upon not only themselves but also the entities that they represent,” Foley said in a statement.

The district announced Wednesday that Robinson had been placed on administrative leave and will resign effective Aug. 15. Robinson served as associate superintendent for eight years. He previously served three years as director of business services and 10 years as a senior high assistant principal.

Timeline of grant request

The reimbursement grant is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Part C program, which contains a “Planning Regional Team” subgrant. It is designed to assist eligible school districts in providing early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities, from birth through age 2, and for their families.

Documents in the auditor’s report show the Norfolk district submitted a reimbursement request April 10 for a $5,000-plus purchase dated June 23, 2022, from 4imprint, which markets promotional merchandise.

The Education Department rejected that request because the reimbursement had to be requested by Oct. 15.

Just over a week after the rejection, on April 18, the report states, Robinson talked with the department and forwarded a “new” purchase order and invoice the next day. This time the purchase order and invoice were dated Sept. 1.

Jeff Kirkpatrick, an attorney who represented Robinson in negotiating his resignation, said the resubmission was made to show the transaction was finalized on or after Sept. 1, when the next grant period started.

The Norfolk school board did not approve the credit card purchase until Sept. 12, Kirkpatrick said.

Robinson’s view, Kirkpatrick added, was that Sept. 12 was the point at which the transaction was finalized and eligible for reimbursement. Kirkpatrick said Robinson had followed a similar process in past grant requests when they fell between multiple fiscal years.

Some documents that were time-stamped on documents in the initial claim were no longer time-stamped, the report states, and some font and formatting on the documents “differs obviously” from the first request.

“It’s not that what the auditor said is wrong, but the idea that this is forgery, that this was an intent to deceive, we think it’s flat out wrong,” Kirkpatrick said Friday. “The idea that their procedures are out of whack is wrong, and the idea that they were trying to pull something over on the Department of Education is also incorrect.”

Next steps of allegations

The Auditor’s Office, which was notified May 5 of the incident, stated it has forwarded information to the Nebraska State Patrol, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and the Madison County Attorney’s Office for possible legal action.

Forgery, abuse of public records and official misconduct by a public servant are cited as relevant state laws.

Foley’s office recommended that the school district implement procedures to carefully review all purchase and disbursement documentation to ensure they “provide a true and accurate record of those transactions.”

“Such cognizance is all the more essential when the reputations of our schools are at stake — the very institutions responsible for setting an example for our youth and teaching them to be responsible, trustworthy citizens,” Foley said.

Norfolk taking report ‘utmost seriously’

Norfolk Superintendent Jami Jo Thompson, said Thursday that the district began an internal investigation once the allegations were presented from Foley’s office and placed Robinson on administrative leave. The investigation is ongoing.

Thompson said the district is taking the audit’s recommendations “utmost seriously” and is reevaluating its internal control procedures to include additional safeguards.

She added it does not appear any harm has been caused to the district’s financial status.

“I would like to assure our community that Norfolk Public Schools will not let this impact our amazing staff and the wonderful students we serve,” Thompson said in a statement. “We remain committed to ensuring that every child is provided with outstanding educational opportunities that prepare them to meet their goals for the future.”

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach rejoins the Nebraska Examiner after studying abroad in Antigua, Guatemala, following a yearlong Examiner internship. His coverage focus areas have included politics and government, health and well-being and higher education.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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