New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, United States Attorney Carla B. Freedman and Terry Harris, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General (ED OIG), Eastern Region, announced today that Syracuse City School District teachers Jason Cecile and Nichole Murray must pay the United States $31,872.90 to resolve allegations that they submitted false timecards in connection with the school district’s Twilight Program.
"These individuals shamelessly stole from the very students they were supposed to be helping. My thanks to U.S. Attorney Freedman, and our other partners in law enforcement, for their dedication to ensuring justice is served and that the stolen money is recouped,” said Thomas DiNapoli, New York State Comptroller.
“The settlement announced today, as well as the related state prosecutions, hold Mr. Cecile and Ms. Murray accountable for stealing money from a federally funded program intended to benefit at-risk high schoolers,” said United States Attorney Carla B. Freedman. “We will not tolerate fraudulent conduct that could undermine an important safety net for struggling students.”
“Mr. Cecile and Ms. Murray not only abused their positions of trust for personal gain, but did so at the expense of the very ones they promised to serve – school children. That is unacceptable,” said Terry Harris, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General’s Eastern Regional Office. “The OIG will continue to aggressively pursue those who misappropriate education funds for their own purposes. America’s students and taxpayers deserve nothing less.”
Beginning in the 2015-2016 school year, Syracuse City School District (SCSD) received federal grant funds administered by the U.S. Department of Education to operate a high school dropout-prevention program known as the Twilight Program. SCSD offered the Twilight Program at various high schools after regular school hours, from 3:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. Students enrolled in the Twilight Program were given the opportunity to make up classes to accumulate enough credits to earn their high school diplomas. SCSD teachers staffed the Twilight Program and received extra pay for teaching classes to Twilight Program participants.
Jason Cecile was the Twilight Program Coordinator at Henninger High School. Nichole Murray was a teacher in the Henninger Twilight Program. As the coordinator, Cecile controlled the Twilight teaching schedule. He instructed certain Twilight staff members to claim hours on their timecard based on the amount of money that was available in the Twilight budget, not on the number of hours they worked. Cecile admitted he habitually left Twilight early and submitted timecards that overreported the number of hours he worked. Murray admitted that she taught one Twilight class, and generally left Henninger at 5:00 p.m., but submitted timecards attesting that she worked until 6:00 p.m., 6:30 p.m., or 7:00 p.m. Both Murray and Cecile signed their timecards and submitted them for payment, falsely attesting to their accuracy.
As part of the settlement agreements, Cecile will pay $20,754.15. Murray will pay $11,118.75.
This investigation was triggered in part by a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the qui tam provision of the False Claims Act, which allows private persons, known as “relators,” to file civil actions on behalf of the government and share in any recovery. The relator in this case will receive $2,001.37 of the settlement proceeds. The case is docketed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York under number 5:19-cv-1188 (DNH/TWD).
In a related case prosecuted by the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office, Jason Cecile pled guilty to Corrupting the Government in the 3rd Degree, a felony, and Nichole Murray pled guilty to Disorderly Conduct. As part of their criminal plea agreements, Murray and Cecile agreed to resign from their employment at SCSD.
Since taking office in 2007, DiNapoli has committed to fighting public corruption and encourages the public to help fight fraud and abuse. New Yorkers can report allegations of fraud involving taxpayer money by calling the toll-free Fraud Hotline at 1-888-672-4555, by filing a complaint online at [email protected] or by mailing a complaint to: Office of the State Comptroller, Division of Investigations, 8th Floor, 110 State St., Albany, NY 12236.