BELLEVILLE - In 2013, Belleville schools were in such dire straits that school officials could not afford textbooks for every student. But a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds the district chose to spend more than $20,000 to purchase flash drives imprinted with its logo, even though those drives were not even compatible with the vast majority of its woefully outdated computers.
The flash drives were purchased from a company where Joe Longo, then a school board member and now a town councilman, worked as a sales representative. Longo did not return repeated phone calls about the transaction, and when Kane In Your Corner attempted to speak with him before Tuesday night's Belleville council meeting, Longo fled the meeting room and hid in a hallway where only authorized personnel were allowed to enter.
Lee Dorry, who initially uncovered the invoices and other documents in connection with his blog, Essex Watch, says there was "no rational reason" for the district to buy the 2,000 flash drives. He notes that, at the time, Belleville schools had fewer than 200 functional computers, almost none of which had USB ports. When the state appointed a financial monitor, Thomas Egan, to oversee the district in 2014, school officials tell Kane In Your Corner that Egan quickly realized the drives could not be used, and ordered them locked in a closet for safekeeping. Belleville's new schools superintendent, Richard Tomko, says only in the past few months - two years after the drives were purchased - has technology at the district improved to the point that some of them are being used.
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Some Belleville residents like Jeff Mattingly are calling for an investigation, since they say the transaction made no sense and involved a company that employed a school board member. Longo is the same trustee who spearheaded the district's controversial technology and video surveillance contract with Clarity Technologies. That contract was terminated by Egan shortly after he was named the state monitor, and the district is currently suing Clarity for more than $1.4 million, claiming negligence, breach of contract and fraud.
Longo's attorney contends the Belleville Board of Education found no wrongdoing with the flash drive purchase. Under state ethics rules, school board members may not personally benefit from transactions, but invoices show Longo was not listed as the salesperson of record, and he has stated that he did not draw a commission on the sale.
However, just two days before the sale, Longo filed an incident report with Belleville police, saying a customer had placed an online order with him for 2,000 flash drives and tried to pay with a stolen credit card. The police report indicates the drives were never shipped. Dorry says if those are the same drives that were then sold to the school district 48 hours later, Longo might have a conflict of interest, as he might have rid himself of product he was stuck with, at taxpayer expense.