Fired charter school chief arrested $100K theft - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Fired charter school chief arrested in LA for $100K theft case

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

The fired former head of one of the Hawaii's largest charter schools was arrested Monday in Los Angeles and has been charged with stealing more than $100,000 from the school.

An investigation by Hawaii News Now first raised questions about spending by Jeff Piontek at Hawaii Technology Academy early last year. 

Piontek had been a respected leader in high-tech education and served as head of school for HTA until he was fired in December 2011.    

HTA in Waipahu has about 1,200 statewide who take courses via computer using a special curriculum taught and monitored by teachers online. 

He has been charged with theft by the Hawaii Attorney General's office, alleging he stole more than $100,000 from the charter school he once headed. 

"Mr. Piontek used the school debit cards, credit cards, reimbursement accounts. He bought gift cards as well as phone charges for his own personal benefit," said Albert Cook, the deputy state attorney general handling the case.

Sources said Piontek used school funds to purchase thousands of dollars in gift cards at non-education related outlets, including Chilis restaurants, Marriott hotels, Ala Moana Center and Spafinder, the web site that allows people to book body treatments like massages, facials or pedicures at 7,000 spas around the world.

Cook declined to go into detail about the allegations of the case, beyond a felony arrest warrant that charged Piontek with two counts of first-degree theft and three counts of second-degree theft.

"Whenever you steal public monies, you're stealing from the people of the state of Hawaii. And whether that's from a DOE school or a public charter school, all of the money comes from tax money and we're all the victims," Cook said.

Piontek was arrested Monday morning at his home in Santa Monica, California by members of the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force and the Los Angeles Police Department.

"We did some work out in the New York area, so he has some associates in that area and family as well, but we ended up tracking him down in the Santa Monica, California area," said Donna Diaz of the U.S. Marshals Service in Honolulu.

Piontek, 47, is now at the Los Angeles County Jail pending a court appearance and extradition back to Honolulu, the U.S. Marshals Service said. His bail has been set at $500,000 by a state judge.

"We were aware that Mr. Piontek does travel frequently. He speaks internationally, as well as the fact that he was no longer residing in Hawaii, we felt that the $500,000 bail would be appropriate, and because of the serious nature of this case," Cook said.

Piontek moved from Hawaii to California in April and lived with his teenaged son who attends a public school in Santa Monica, a source said.

A financial statement first reported by Hawaii News Now in February 2012 showed the school spent $107,860 on travel, including airfare, hotels, meals and car rentals for administrators in the year that ended July 1, 2011.  Most of that travel money was for Piontek and his vice principal, Ana Matsumoto, who was placed on leave in late 2011 and also left the school.   

An audit of the school's finances found "abuse, waste or fraud is likely to have occurred." 

Piontek declined an on-camera interview in early 2012, but defended the trips he took, saying they were opportunities to spread the news about the school he headed for more than three years and promote Hawaii as a place of innovative learning. 

At the time, Piontek said he was not worried about being charged with a crime. 

"There's nothing I did that I've done that's a criminal offense," Piontek told Hawaii News Now in February 2012.  

In early 2012, the then-head of HTA's board, Louis Saint-Cyr, confirmed the AG's office was investigating.  Saint-Cyr claimed the board didn't know about any questionable spending until they received a letter tipping them off to the problems in early December 2011. 

As a result of Piontek's actions, the charter school's board voted to create an ethics policy, increased the frequency of school financial audits and canceled the school's credit card.  It also required any purchase of $2,500 or more to be approved by two school officials.

"This arrest in no way reflects on HTA and its hard working staff today," Shannon Cleary, the school's director of advancement said in an email Tuesday afternoon.

The school conducted quarterly financial audits for the last 20 months that have been reduced to just two a year, "after showing proof of fiduciary and ethical responsibility to the Charter School Commission" HTA said in a statement Tuesday.

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