Florida Keys News
Thursday, January 24, 2013
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Gentile faces more scrutiny
Hotline issue with schools official

The fate of School District employee Ken Gentile may be decided by action, or lassitude on the part of his boss, Superintendent Mark Porter, as new allegations of misdeeds on Gentile's part came to light this week.

Complaints made against Gentile, who serves as Porter's chief of staff, somehow were directed to the email account of Amy Reno, a former paid intern answerable to Gentile, from March 28 to July 1, 2011.

The complaints came via the district's whistle-blower hotline, which Gentile put into place in late 2010 in the wake of a series of financial scandals. The provider of the service is EthicsPoint Inc. of Oregon. Gentile was charged with overseeing its operations, reviewing the reported complaints, then bringing them to the attention of the School Board. The service, which is accessible to the public by phone or email, had yet to become operational when Reno's employment with the district ended.

The hotline accusations state that, among other things, Gentile asked subordinates to pray on their knees with him, creating "a very hostile work environment for staff," and that he created and split up a contract to keep it from going before the board.

Gentile on Wednesday denied both the hotline accusations and the insinuation that he deliberately diverted any reports critical of himself to Reno, saying that in his view, EthicsPoint would have referred such complaints over his head to higher-ranking district employees as a matter of course.

"It wouldn't have been a contractual term," he said. "It would just be a best practice that any allegations about me wouldn't be investigated by me. It's not a contract with myself and the vendor. It's a contract with the School District and the vendor."

The contract, at http://www.keysschools.com/departments/purchasing/contracts/Ethics_Point..., bears Gentile's signature, but makes no mention of reporting complaints to anyone other than the representative of the district overseeing the project -- meaning Gentile.

"Every contract is reviewed before it's signed," said Gentile, who was unable to explain how the reports concerning him ended up in an ex-employee's email account.

"The vendor has been contracted and [the oversight] has been corrected," Gentile said. "Currently, all investigations relating to me go to the board attorney [Dirk] Smits. That may change. They may go to the board chairman, if that's decided."

The EthicsPoint reports concerning Gentile only came to light this week, after months of dithering by the district. Schools watchdog Larry Murray put in a public records request in October, but claims he was stonewalled by Gentile, who instead sent him summaries of the complaints, rather than the actual raw data files.

Under the threat of a lawsuit by Murray's lawyer, former State Attorney Dennis Ward, five of 10 missing files, called "orphans" by EthicsPoint, were finally handed over by the district to Murray, with Smits acting as an intermediary. Murray, who once served as an appointed member of the district's Audit and Finance Committee, expects to receive the final missing files in the next few days.

"I pray," Gentile said when asked about the charges leveled at him in the reports. "I'm a man of faith, and I have no problem with praying, but I would never force anyone to pray." When asked if he ever requested employees pray with him, he replied, "No."

Asked about a report filed May 17, 2012, that his wife, Donna, "runs around the building looking through files" as a "volunteer," Gentile answered: "She's volunteered in a lot of different capacities throughout the community, and did volunteer for a short period of time at the district. She's also applied several times for jobs at the district."

Ironically, one of the complaints made to the hotline was from Donna Gentile, who complained that her job applications hadn't been processed.

Gentile also denied any irregularities with respect to contract writing.

"I am familiar with School Board policies and I would not split up contracts to avoid them going to the board," he said.

Board Chairman Andy Griffiths said he wanted more information before pronouncing judgement on Gentile.

"As in all complaints, we must get to the bottom of this using facts, not rumors," Griffiths said. "And I'm looking forward to getting to the bottom of this one. Quickly."

Griffiths also said he would need to confer with Porter to determine whether an investigation into a possible cover-up was warranted.

"First we have to see whose lap this falls into, mine or the super's, and how we go about doing this investigation. I've never done an investigation of this nature, so I may have to enlist some help. It'll probably be [Smits.]"

Porter, while "frustrated" with the slow pace of district compliance with Murray's records request, and the subsequent bad press the situation has generated for the district, agreed with Griffiths that it would be best to reserve judgement on the matter until all the facts were in.

"It's been kind of an evolving story," Porter said. "One of the difficulties that a fraud hotline is fraught with is that it's anonymous. Anyone can call in anything. We'll investigate the situation and go from there. I haven't spoken with Dirk Smits about this yet."

In the meantime, Gentile remains in charge of investigating those hotline complaints that don't involve him.

Gentile already has served a short suspension from his duties in December, which was meted out by Porter, for Gentile's allegedly making misleading claims regarding his status as a certified public accountant in the state of Florida.

Gentile served the suspension, but appealed the disciplinary action to the Florida Department of Administrative Hearings. A decision on Gentile's appeal has yet to be reached.

Gentile's three-year contract expires in May. Porter may renew Gentile's employment, attempt to terminate it, or simply let the contract lapse, Griffiths said.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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