Jurors in EPISD cheating scheme trial listen to profanity-filled recording

EL PASO, Texas - Week two of the trial of five former El Paso Independent School District administrators accused of taking part in a cheating scandal ended with the playing of a profanity-filled recording of a meeting between two of the defendants and a former Austin High School counselor.

Former Austin counselor Elizabeth Saucedo testified for more than two hours Friday, telling the jury she had a contentious relationship with defendant and former Austin High Assistant Principal Diane Thomas. Saucedo added she was asked by the FBI to record a meeting with Thomas and Dr. John Tanner, Austin's former principal, on May 9, 2013.

Prior to the meeting, Saucedo said Thomas came to her office and told her she was removing students from an enrollment list for a speech class because that teacher had become "a star witness for the FBI against Dr. Tanner."

Former Austin speech teacher Jeanette Halliday testified earlier this week she kept meticulous attendance records and recorded at least 30 changes made to them by Tanner in the school's system over a four week period.

Tanner allegedly tried to get rid of Halliday, who admitted to meeting with the FBI and showing them her attendance records.

In the recorded phone conversation, much of which was difficult for the courtroom audience to hear, Saucedo tells Tanner about the conversation she had with Thomas referring to Halliday being "a star witness for the FBI against Dr. Tanner." Thomas can be heard denying making the statement. Saucedo then replies: "Oh my God! That's exactly what was said to me in my office."

Shortly afterward the sound of a slamming door can be heard. Saucedo told the jury that was Thomas leaving the room.

Tanner can later be heard in the recording lamenting to Saucedo about the possibility of "spending the rest of my life in federal prison" and stating: "I didn't do anything wrong." He goes on to call Halliday, who was sitting in the courtroom listening to the recording and testimony on Friday, "a pariah" and "a horrible teacher" among other names, some laced with profanity.

Saucedo also testified co-defendant Mark Tegmeyer, a former Austin High assistant principal, told her to put a transfer student from Mexico in the 9th grade, despite having enough credits to be in the 10th grade.

"I told (Tegmeyer) the student needed to be placed in the 10th grade and he said to leave her where she was at," Saucedo testified. "The following year, when she wasn't moved up, the student dropped out of school."

By keeping them out of the 10th grade, students would avoid federal accountability testing, by which schools' are measured.

Earlier Friday, Dr. James Steinhauser, EPISD's former assistant superintendent for research evaluation testing and planning (2008-15), testified about being asked by the FBI to compare the number of 10th graders at other schools to Bowie High School, where the cheating was originally discovered. Steinhauser said he found 17 to 18 percent of the students at Bowie were sophomores, when it should have been more like 25 percent.

Steinhauser said he notified then EPISD superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, who indicated he was already aware of the date and told him he would look into it. Garcia was earlier convicted of conspiracy to defraud the government and has already served two and a half years in federal prison.

Steinhauser said the FBI asked him to also look at the transcripts of 289 Austin High students.  "They asked me which students should not have graduated because of attendance issues," Steinhauser told the jury.

State law required, at the time, for students to have 90 percent attendance and a passing grade to receive credit. Students with 75 to 89 percent attendance could be approved, but only with documentation of a principal's plan.

"I flagged 34 transcripts I felt needed further study," Steinhauser testified. "I gave that information to the FBI. I found several students would not have graduated under the 90 percent rule."

"Would Austin have missed the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) rating needed without those students graduating?" U.S. Attorney Debra Kanof asked Steinhauser.

"Yes," Steinhauser replied.

Testimony is scheduled to continue on Monday at 9 a.m. at the Federal Courthouse. In addition to Tanner and Tegmeyer, former EPISD Associate Superintendent James Anderson is accused of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. 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.

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

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