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Ex-principal arraigned in theft of gift cards

| Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A former principal at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill surrendered Tuesday on a charge of stealing $4,500 in Giant Eagle gift cards meant for student rewards.

Cassandra Richardson-Kemp, 58, of Avalon was released on her own recognizance after being arraigned by Bellevue District Judge Tara Smith. She also waived her right to a preliminary hearing.

Richardson-Kemp admitted to using the cards, which were purchased by the school, and two years ago offered to write a $15,000 check to cover the city school district's losses, investigators wrote in an affidavit.

She declined comment yesterday. Defense attorney James Ecker disputed the confession.

"We're not admitting to anything and we intend to plead not guilty," Ecker said. "She's a woman who spent more than three decades with the school district, displayed exemplary service and has never been in trouble before."

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Richardson-Kemp could be eligible for a program for first-time offenders in which criminal charges are withdrawn following a period of probation.

Allderdice sophomore Jenny Marze, 16, said the theft, coupled with the arrests of 20 students during a brawl two weeks ago, is giving a good school a bad name.

"We're all embarrassed about the fight that happened here and now this," said Marze, who is on student council. "This is messing up the image of the school for the seniors."

Richardson-Kemp worked as a teacher in Pittsburgh Public Schools for 20 years before serving as principal at Oliver High School in the North Side from July 1994 to August 2000, said district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh. She became principal at Allderdice in July 2005.

She retired in 2006, but was given a contract as interim principal from September 2006 to Jan. 31, 2007. Her contract was extended to June 30, 2007, but she left three months early.

District Solicitor Ira Weiss said school police began investigating when the new principal, B.J. Komoroski, received a bill in April 2007 for $4,000 for 160 Giant Eagle gift cards in $25 denominations.

"We, in the normal course of events, found out she was violating certain rules and regulations regarding the use of these cards," said Superintendent Mark Roosevelt.

The district gave a report of the case to Zappala's office, Weiss said.

"There were a number of issues in the report. (The rest) were more management issues in terms of keeping track of her time and what she reported. There were issues of how much she was paid versus the actual time she worked," Weiss said. "We turned it all over to the district attorney's office, but we believed the most credible part was the gift cards."

According to the criminal complaint, when Komoroski received the $4,000 bill, approximately $3,700 of the cards had already been used.

On May 11, 2007, school police confronted Richardson-Kemp with documents showing the gift cards had been used by her, her daughter, Brandi Richardson, and Richardson-Kemp's sister, who was not named. Richardson offered to write the $15,000 personal check, the complaint states.

Police said the gift cards billed to Allderdice were used in conjunction with a Giant Eagle Advantage Card registered to Brandi Richardson.

Investigators said additional charges may be filed against Richardson-Kemp's daughter and sister. There was no answer at Richardson-Kemp's home yesterday.

"It's a shame. Sandy is a nice person. When I knew her, she did a fine job," board member Jean Fink said. "But it's not like we didn't pay the woman. What's really frustrating is people in a position of trust that abuse that trust."

In January, a volunteer in charge of fundraising for a Lawrence County Catholic school was charged with stealing nearly $340,000 in cash and Giant Eagle gift cards from St. Vitus Parish and using the money to buy expensive vehicles and jewelry.

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