Ex-TPS athletic director pleads guilty to theft
BY ANDREA EGER World Staff Writer
Friday, March 15, 2013
3/15/13 at 7:09 AM
For more: See Stephanie Spring’s plea agreement.
Tulsa Public Schools' former athletic director pleaded guilty Thursday morning to federal charges of stealing money from the school district.
Stephanie Spring, 45, admitted to depositing money from the rental of school facilities into her own personal account.
The recommended restitution amount in the case is about $92,200, but a prosecutor asked U.S. District Judge John Dowdell to delay Spring's sentencing because of her ongoing cooperation in the investigation. Her sentencing was tentatively set for June 13.
Spring, who will remain on bond, was allowed to leave with her parents and her partner, Nicole Garrett, who is a P.E. teacher and golf coach at East Central High School.
Spring issued an apology in a written statement handed out to reporters by her attorney, Allen Smallwood.
"I am so sorry for what I have done. I broke the law, I broke the people's trust and I broke the very core of my upbringing. I have no excuse for what I did," Spring said in the signed statement. "Though deeply remorseful, I am not yet in a position to ask for forgiveness and maybe I never will be. After I right my wrong and pay my debt to society, I will live the rest of my life working to put myself in a position to earn that forgiveness"
Spring's guilty plea marks the end of one chapter in a nearly two-year saga that involves a slew of individuals connected to the state's largest school district.
What began in summer 2011 as a campus police investigation into possible computer hacking of the personal emails of Spring's former secretary led to the suspension of Spring and her deputies, Jon Wheeler and Latricia Pruitt.
Last spring, it was revealed that the scope of the investigation had turned toward possible embezzlement and misappropriation of funds and that the FBI and federal prosecutors were involved.
On Jan. 31, the first federal charge came down, with prosecutors accusing Spring of stealing an unspecified amount in excess of $5,000, and depositing it into her personal account, rather than depositing it into the TPS general fund where it belonged.
In mid-February, Spring was arraigned in Tulsa federal court, where she waived her right to have the case against her presented to a federal grand jury, a move that normally precedes a guilty plea.
Hundreds of emails obtained by the Tulsa World through an Open Records request reveal Spring solicited rental fees from individuals who contacted her, directed the amounts of fees collected by an employee at East Central High School and a soccer team booster club official at Memorial High School, and dictated the division of fees between an account called "TPS Athletics," booster club accounts and off-the-books payments to school grounds- keepers.
But a check of the school district's log of revenue received from facility rentals or leases during the same time period includes almost no records of payments for athletic facility use.
Organizers of youth and adult sports groups have told the World that they paid thousands of dollars in recent years to play and practice on school property, but all of that came to an abrupt halt when the TPS Athletic Department became embroiled in scandal in 2011-12.
Ultimately, Spring, whose salary was $79,744, and Assistant Athletic Director Wheeler, whose salary was $53,828, resigned. Assistant Athletic Director Pruitt was reassigned and had her salary reduced from $58,565 to $48,630, according to TPS personnel records. She was moved to an alternative education site called Tulsa MET High School where her title is now "adviser," the name for teachers in that special program.
TPS officials have been mum on the case since the FBI and federal prosecutors took it on a year ago, but on Thursday morning, that silence ended.
Chris Payne, a TPS spokesman, issued a written statement saying school leaders were pleased with Spring's guilty plea, proud of its campus police department and grateful to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"Her actions clearly caused harm to TPS students and damaged the reputation of our district," Payne said of Spring in the statement. "When taking on the responsibility of leadership, particularly in athletics, we hold ourselves out as an example to our youth. It is disappointing when that sacred responsibility is treated so casually and with such disregard."
Karen Gilbert, a parent and TPS employee who served as Memorial's soccer booster club president for a total of three years over the last seven years, also made her first public statement about her involvement in collecting rental fees.
Emails released through an Open Records request revealed that Gilbert routinely asked Spring to specify or approve rental fee amounts for Memorial facilities and the cut that Memorial's soccer and football booster organizations would keep. Gilbert also regularly let Spring know to expect payments she mailed to the district athletics office.
Booster clubs are independent organizations with their own bylaws and officers. A review of booster club reports filed with TPS found that in one instance, Memorial High School soccer boosters even self-reported the proceeds they were collecting for facility rentals in 2011-12, but apparently that red flag went unnoticed.
Gilbert, who is also a city councilor and married to Tulsa World Chief Photographer Tom Gilbert, said Thursday that she was "very disappointed to hear about the mishandling of funds for TPS facility use."
"As volunteers at the soccer booster club, we take our responsibilities very seriously. We followed all instructions given to us by the athletic administration and we were completely unaware of any misuse involving the handling of funds," Gilbert said. "We have been fully cooperating with the TPS officials and will continue to do so. An audit (by school officials) has found that all soccer booster club funds are accounted for. The real victims are the children. These organizations and facilities exist to enhance their education and social development."
Stephanie Spring bio information
Graduate of Hale High School. Hired by Tulsa Public Schools in August 1990.
In 1997, became the district’s first female athletic director.
Would go on to serve on the board for the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association,
the governing body for high school athletics statewide.
In court Thursday, told the judge she graduated from Abilene Christian University and later earned her master’s from Northeastern State University and doctorate from Oklahoma State University.
Timeline of TPS Athletic Department scandal
July 2011 — TPS Campus Police Department
reports possible computer
hacking into personal emails of a suspended
athletic department secretary
named Cheryl Murphy. Spring and assistant
athletic directors Latricia Pruitt
and Jon Wheeler reportedly disclosed
to a TPS attorney they accessed Murphy’s
personal emails using password
they found in her vacated office.
November 2011 — TPS suspends
Spring, Pruitt and Wheeler.
December 2011 — Tulsa school board
fires Murphy after a due process
hearing where administrators testified
she was offered two new assignments
but failed to report
to work. Separately,
East Central High
director and football
coach, Travis Hill, is
suspended and subsequently
January 2012 — Tulsa
Ballard begins termination
proceedings against Spring.
One week later, Wheeler resigns and
the week after that, Spring resigns.
Coaches from throughout TPS summoned
to ethics training session that
includes explanation of embezzlement
and urging by district officials to
report any possible violations to “minimize
consequences and maximize
opportunities to survive it.
February 2012 — Ballard says police
investigation has expanded into
reported embezzlement and other
financial wrongdoing. Tulsa County
District Attorney Tim Harris tells Tulsa
World he will ask for independent
review by Tulsa Police Department but
TPS Campus Police officials respond
that their officers are qualified and
experienced in such investigations.
March 2012 — Ballard says FBI and federal
prosecutors are now involved in
investigation into possible embezzlement
and misappropriation of funds.
January 2013 — Spring is charged
in Tulsa-based Northern District of
Oklahoma federal court with stealing
money from the school district.
February 2013 — Spring makes her
first appearance in federal court and
waives her right to have case go before
a federal grand jury, a move that
typically precedes a guilty plea.
Thursday — Spring pleads guilty; sentencing
tentatively set for June 13.
Source: Tulsa World
Original Print Headline: Spring enters guilty plea
Andrea Eger 918-581-8470
Stephanie Spring makes her way into the Page Belcher Federal Building on Thursday. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World
An American flag flies at Memorial High School, 5840 South Hudson Ave. TOM GILBERT/Tulsa World file