JT files to block document release
Jim Thorpe Area School District is going to court to block the release of a report on administrators’ potential misuse of a district credit card.
On Friday, the district officially asked the Carbon County Court of Common Pleas to rule that the report, which came out of a forensic review of district credit cards by an auditing firm, should not be made public.
The report, by the firm Brown Schultz Sheridan and Fritz, was authorized after residents found evidence that a district credit card was used to pay for thousands of dollars worth of meals at area restaurants and first class airline tickets.
After the board received the report, they voted to place business manager Lauren Kovac on paid leave and hired a second auditing firm as well as a law firm to conduct an internal investigation of the district business office.
In August, the Times News made a request for the BSSF forensic review report and related documents under the state’s open records law. After the district denied that request, the Times News appealed to the state office of open records, who ruled in October that the district must release the documents.
On Friday, the school district appealed the OOR decision to Carbon County Common Pleas Court.
In the appeal, the school board’s firm, Beard Legal Group, said Superintendent John Rushefski, who took over July 1, failed to notify them that the Times News had appealed the district’s decision to the Office of Open Records.
Elizabeth Benjamin, a lawyer with Beard Legal Group, wrote that Rushefski did not contact her firm until the OOR had made the decision to order that the documents were released.
Benjamin wrote that Rushefski had never been an open records officer prior to taking the superintendent’s job July 1, and had not been fully educated on the responsibilities involved with being the officer.
She added that Kovac often handled right to know requests. However, the school board voted to place Kovac on leave on Sept. 12, a few days after the district received notice of the appeal.
Rushefski said on Friday that the lawyer’s case is accurate and he missed the deadline.
“I did not respond in time with regard to the time line of the open records office,” he said.
According to the appeal, the main reason the district wants to prevent the release of the report is that it is related to an ongoing investigation into potential employee misconduct.
The district said releasing the report could violate the privacy rights of employees who are mentioned in the report.
Directors also said it also could breach the attorney-client privilege between the district and its attorney.
The district gave those reasons in his final response to the Times News which stated the report was exempt from being released under the open records law.
Last year, residents used the state’s right to know law to obtain statements from a district credit card in the name of business manager Lauren Kovac. The statements showed thousands of dollars worth of charges for first class airline tickets and lunches at area restaurants attended by the former superintendent and board members.
The school board never authorized Kovac to apply for the card, but directors approved regular payments for expenses she charged on it, including the meals and plane tickets.
The card was officially in the name of “Lauren Kovac, Jim Thorpe Area School District.” Statements were addressed to Kovac at the district office.
According to right to know requests, the board approved paying back $35,816.76 in expenses charged to the card between 2015-2018. Of those, $4,443.88 worth of the expenses were for meals at area restaurants.
The first-class plane tickets were used for former Superintendent Brian Gasper and two school board members to attend a school board conferences out of state.
After residents started asking questions about the misuse, the district hired an auditor to conduct a forensic review of the administrators’ credit card use.