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Lee County Schools pays out more than $700K to two whistle-blowers

Posted at 11:13 PM, Oct 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-06 23:15:30-04

LEE COUNTY — Fox 4 has learned the Lee County School District paid more than $700,000 to settle lawsuits with two whistle-blowers.

Those two women were involved in investigating the misuse of Pell Grant funds at Fort Myers Technical College, before they both had their contracts non-renewed.

We first brought you the story of the Pell Grant investigation at FMTC in February of last year. That internal investigation found problems in the accounts of 394 students at FMTC. It showed $13,000 in grant funds hadn’t been paid out, but the account was empty, so the report said $10,000 was borrowed from the general fund to cover it.

Cheri Russ was an auditor at the School District working on the report, and Judith Johnson was the Senior Director of FMTC.

According to court documents, Johnson had her contract non-renewed based on “concerns raised by over 30 employees, and misconduct," and Russ had her contract non-renewed for “insubordinate behavior and disclosing confidential information."

Both women then sued the School District for violating Florida’s Whistle-blower Act and retaliating against them for their work in the FMTC investigation.

We reached out to both women, and their attorney Benjamin Yormak, but they couldn’t say much. When we asked Yormack if he could speak about the case, he said "I won’t. No not going to get close to that line."

But we do know the School District ended up settling with the two women. Russ ended up getting $251,600 and Johnson got $450,000.

School Board member Melisa Giovannelli brought up the case at a board meeting in August.

“No one listened to me. No one wanted to investigate. No one wanted to do anything. It fell on deaf ears," said Giovannelli during the August 31st meeting.

Giovannelli said that inaction ended up costing the District.

“Now we have a whistle-blower that we have to pay $450,000 to that we shouldn’t have to do, because we should have taken care of business back when this was brought up," said Giovannelli during the meeting.

We reached out to Giovannelli, but she didn’t want to comment on the case further than what she said in the meeting.

She is hoping, however, that settlements like this are a thing of the past in the School District.

“I am hopeful under the new administration, that we won’t have this happen again," said Giovannelli in the meeting.

In the settlement agreements with both women, the School District does not admit any wrongdoing.