Auditor testifies in trial of former EPISD administrators accused in cheating scheme

EL PASO, Texas - The chief internal auditor for the El Paso Independent School District took the stand Wednesday in the trial of five former administrators accused of taking part in the district's cheating scandal to artificially inflate schools' accountability scores.

Myra Martinez told the jury she conducted an audit after being subpoenaed by the FBI. Martinez audited a number of forms former EPISD associate superintendent James Anderson signed off on to allow ninth graders to jump to the 11th grade.

Prosecutors say the goal of the cheating scheme was to promote at risk 9th graders to the 11th grade so they would not have to take state-mandated tests in the 10th grade.  Others were allegedly withheld in the 9th grade and later promoted to the 11th grade.

The administrators also allegedly engaged in schemes designed to discourage at-risk students from registering in schools, to under-represent at-risk student populations within the schools and fraudulently award class credits to students to falsely increase graduation rates of schools, change attendance records of students and manipulate students grade levels to avoid state accountability tests.

Anderson is accused, along with former Austin High principal John Tanner and assistant principal Mark Tegmeyer, of conspiracy to defraud the government.

Martinez said she found 626 reclassifications during the time Anderson was at the district. When asked how many Anderson had signed, she replied: "(Anderson) signed off on all of them."

She went on to confirm that 42 percent of those students had not taken the 10th grade TAKS test, by which federal accountability is measured.

Martinez testified she was also asked  by the FBI to look at attendance records at Austin High School from the 2010-11 school year through 2013-14, when Tanner was principal. She said the audit was "tremendous" and involved pulling more than 200,000 records and looking at about 36,000.

She said she found more than 10,000 instances where there was an update or change to absences made by Tanner without supporting documentation.

"If they update after a teacher takes attendance, we expect to see something noting it," Martinez said, "whether it be a note from a teacher or something. You should always have supporting documentation."

Donald Sutherland, an accountant and former FBI agent working for the Weaver group hired by the EPISD board to conduct its own investigation, also testified Wednesday morning. Sutherland said he conducted two interviews of Anderson.

"He told me he took numerous steps to flush out wrongdoing and try and correct the wrongdoing in the district," Sutherland said.

When asked by U.S. Prosecutor Robert Almonte if he found that to be true after conducting his investigation, Sutherland replied: "We didn't find that to be accurate."

Sutherland said Anderson blamed other associate superintendents for the wrongdoing and when he asked Anderson what his responsibilities were at the district, he said Anderson told him: "Making sure the lights were on at the football field."

Sutherland said Anderson told him he contacted EPISD Chief of Police Victor Arraiza to report criminal activity by then Bowie principal Jesus Chavez, where the scandal originated. However, Arraiza took the stand Wednesday and told the jury he never heard from Anderson about Chavez.

In addition to Anderson, and Tegmeyer, former Austin assistant principal Diane Thomas is charged with retaliating against a witness or a victim. Former Austin assistant principal Nancy Love is charged with retaliating against a witness or victim and false declaration before a grand jury.

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