Feds charge former Chicago principal with taking $200,000 in school overtime scheme

Feds charge former Chicago principal with taking $200,000 in school overtime scheme

A former Chicago Public Schools principal convinced her employees to falsely charge for overtime and give her the money, claiming it would go for school expenses. Charges state she instead paid her mortgage.

A former Chicago Public Schools elementary principal was arrested July 14 on federal charges stating she orchestrated a seven-year scheme to defraud the district of at least $200,00o in overtime payments.

Sarah Jackson Abedelal, 57, told employees she would approve overtime they never worked and collect the extra money they received to pay for legitimate school expenses, according to the 10-count indictment. Instead, Abedelal used the taxpayer funds for personal expenses, including the mortgage on her home. She has pleaded “not guilty” to the wire fraud charges.

“If true, these charges represent a betrayal of trust unbecoming of any public servant, especially those who serve students and families,” according to a statement by CPS. “This type of conduct has no place at Chicago Public Schools.”

Abedelal had been the principal of Brennemann Elementary School in Chicago’s Buena Park neighborhood, serving for almost 12 years before coming under investigation by the CPS inspector general in 2019. She was later removed from her position in April 2019 at the recommendation of the inspector general, several years after the scheme began.

According to the 18-page indictment, Abedelal instigated the overtime scheme in 2012 after directing business managers to prepare falsified overtime sheets, lying about “substantial amounts of overtime hours” they claimed school employees had worked. She, her assistant principal and three business managers are alleged to have also instructed employees to sign the sheets, certifying they had worked the hours.

The employees would then withdraw the unearned overtime in cash and meet with Abedelal individually in her office or in classrooms. She collected the funds, telling them the extra money would “be used to pay other legitimate expenses incurred by Brennemann School.”

Instead, she allegedly used the cash to purchase money orders at a currency exchange to hide the transactions. She then used the proceeds to pay personal expenses, including her home mortgage.

“The kids didn’t even have a playground to use, there were no school assemblies,” said Tess Rigby, chairwoman of Brennemann’s Parent Advisory Council. She said during Abedelal’s tenure, she and other parents had been fighting for more resources.

“This school had nothing and we’d been told for years there’s no budget,” Rigby said.

Prior discovery of Abedelal’s overtime scheme, she had received praise as a “high-performing principal” among CPS schools and was even commended by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In 2013, Abedelal was complimented at a back-to-school news conference attended by Emanuel and his hand-picked schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, whom Abedelal referred to as a mentor.

Byrd-Bennett was convicted three years later in her own fraud scheme for accepting kickbacks to steer $20 million in contract work to the education consulting firm she worked for.

Abedelal was then picked for CPS’ Independent Schools Principal Program in 2017, which granted additional independence to schools and allowed principals to operate with less oversight.

Federal charges against Abedelal came just days after another federal probe came to light. The FBI is investigating an alleged pay-to-play bribery scheme within the Cook County Board of Review, according to an affidavit obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The federal investigation alleges an organized group within the Board of Review has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from Cook County residents to lower their property tax assessments.

Federal prosecutors for the past few years have been going after state and local politicians in a wide-ranging probe that led to the ouster of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan after 36 years running the Statehouse.

Illinois is the second-most corrupt state in the nation and that corruption comes with a heavy price tag for the state economy – more than $550 million in foregone economic activity per year.

Not only does this cost all Illinois taxpayers, but it shakes residents’ faith in state and local elected officials. The ongoing federal corruption probes are a reminder that Illinois has a lot of work ahead to undo the political culture of corruption.

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