District's credit card records probed

| Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Investigators are looking into allegations that someone used a Fort Cherry School District credit card for thousands of dollars in personal expenses, including tickets to a Florida amusement park.

The Pennsylvania Auditor General's Office received documents related to the charges on the American Express card as part of an audit, and the Washington County District Attorney's Office recently sought financial documents regarding the transactions, current and former school board members told the Tribune-Review.

“I'm not saying anyone has stolen any money,” said former board member Victoria “Vicky” Lauff, 54, of Robinson, Washington County. “They are saying no public money was used, but I haven't seen any proof.”

School board member Leann Darnley raised the issue publicly in December. She wants an explanation, as do residents who run the “Fort Cherry Info” blog, which tracks expenditures and other happenings in the McDonald district.

“The fact is we weren't provided any documentation to show how it was repaid one way or another,” Darnley said of questionable charges in 2012.

Both women filed right-to-know requests with the district to get documents related to the credit card use. Both said they want an independent investigation and forensic audit of district accounts.

Superintendent Robert Dinnen said he isn't worried about what an audit would reveal.

“I feel more than confident,” Dinnen said. “Agencies from the outside have looked into it.”

Other than the school district's longtime auditor, Cypher & Cypher, Dinnen declined to identify which outside agencies participated in an investigation he conducted “about this time” last year.

“That investigation was concluded as far as the district is concerned,” he said. “There were no district funds spent inappropriately.”

Dinnen wouldn't identify the subject of his investigation, citing personnel privacy protections, but said records prove no public money was spent on personal expenses. He said he could not provide records because he was attending a conference in Harrisburg.

Dinnen told the board Sept. 16 that a district attorney's detective recently requested documents related to American Express accounts, Darnley said.

District Attorney Gene Vittone could not be reached.

An email the Tribune-Review obtained shows in June copies of the American Express documents went to Elizabeth Wagenseller, deputy auditor general for external affairs. The auditor's office acknowledged it is conducting a normal review of Fort Cherry accounts.

“Could credit cards be part of that? Yes,” said agency spokeswoman Susan Woods.

School board President James “Jamie” White said the charges in Orlando were not related to district business. He said the board has not reviewed all documents related to the credit card investigation, but White said he is confident of Cypher's findings.

“We asked the auditors to verify no school funds were spent, and those were their findings,” White said.

Dinnen said the district canceled its American Express card and “has no credit cards outstanding.”

The Trib obtained documents for a Fort Cherry account with American Express showing two cards in the name of Paul R. Sroka, Fort Cherry's business manager.

“My name is on the card,” said Sroka, 48, of South Fayette. “But that doesn't mean the charges were made by me.”

Sroka said his name appeared on many district credit cards and charge accounts because of his position. He refused to say if he made the charges and accused his critics of waging a “public relations witch hunt.”

“Those people have been harassing me for years,” Sroka said. “I will not have my professional reputation dragged through the mud.”

District records for an American Express card from July 2011 through December 2012 compiled by the Fort Cherry School District and dated March 18, 2013, showed $5,633.91 in charges for general supplies, a telescope case for the science club, and a hotel room and rental car for the 2012 state wrestling tournament.

Separate statements show 38 charges on an American Express card in Sroka's name from July 29 through Sept. 28, 2012, totaling more than $1,900. The balance was paid.

Those statements include:

• Eight charges totaling $330.74 at a Get-Go station on Washington Pike in Bridgeville

• Eleven charges at the Giant Eagle Market District grocery store in Settlers Ridge totaling $417.75.

• Charges at a pizzeria and Wal-Mart in Athens, Ohio, on Sept. 6, 2012, the day Ohio University records show Sroka officiated a football game between the Bobcats and New Mexico State.

• Charges for a trip to Orlando, Fla., from July 26 through Aug. 3, 2012, that included a Payless Car Rental and $277.98 for admission to Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park.

Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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