State Attorney’s office investigating Uzzell, Superintendent calls meeting ‘a witchhunt’
by Teresa Eubanks, Journal Editor
State Attorney Willie Meggs has confirmed that his office is looking into allegations of wrongdoing by Liberty County School Superintendent Gloria “Gay” Uzzell.
Meggs said the investigation surrounds her use of a county credit card.
Investigators arrived at the school board office last Wednesday in Bristol to collect documentation for their investigation.
At last week’s standing-room-only school board meeting, Chairman Kyle Peddie quizzed Uzzell about over $12,000 in charges made on her card, which has a $10,000 limit.
Uzzell said she was “blindsided” at the June 4 meeting, which she called “the most brutal night of my life.”
Peddie, who said he had only recently learned that Uzzell had credit cards issued to the county office without board approval, went over a long list of charges on several credit card bills. Thousands of dollars were charged to clothing shops, hotels and restaurants as well as online stores like Amazon.com.
Uzzell said she mistakenly put items on the school credit card instead of her own, and those were “reimbursed long before there was any question.”
She said part of the problem stemmed from the fact that, “Out of the nine months I’ve been here, we’ve only had a finance officer for four months.”
She was hoping Tuesday afternoon that the board would approve her recommended candidate, Shelia Hall, for the job.
She added, “I have committed no wrongdoing. The evidence speaks for itself. I do not feel it was appropriate for the chairman to bring it up. It was pretty brutal and I will not tolerate that treatment again. Our school board meetings are for school business, not for accusations.”
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This is not the school administrator’s first brush with financial irregularities.
She was suspended without pay for three days and her administrative duties were limited when she was employed with the Okaloosa School System in 2004.
School Superintendent Don Gaetz outlined the problems in a March 15, 2004 letter to Uzzell noting three problems:
• Payroll records were changed for one employee without approval. “School Board policies do not allow alteration of pay records without thorough justification in writing and then only in limited cases when errors are made. No supervisor has the authority to permit such practices and your supervisor does not support your statements that he did so,” Gaetz wrote.
• Cash collection procedures were not followed. “While there is no proof of theft, the failure to follow cash collection policies creates the potential for theft or accusations of theft,” the letter stated.
• “Auditors reported your difficulty in keeping separate your personal property and public property. It appears that you failed to think through the potential consequences of your actions and the appearance of your actions,” according to Gaetz.
Gaetz praised her work with the Blended School program and called her an energetic, effective employee, but pointed out, “We cannot abide even our most valued employees not taking seriously their financial management responsibilities.”
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After following up on complaints against employees by Liberty County School Superintendent Gay Uzzell, State Attorney Willie Meggs told The Journal last week, “We are not honoring any trespassing warnings from the superintendent without a hearing.”
The Liberty County Sheriff’s office has received at least three complaints from the superintendent over the past months. Lt. Mark Mallory said Uzzell requested trespass warnings be issued against two former employees, one she fired and the other who resigned.
According to Mallory, the superintendent said she was being harassed by Jason Fowler and played a voice mail message he had left. “I didn’t hear anything criminal,” Mallory said after listening to the message. In the end, he issued a trespassing warning against Fowler for Uzzell’s office only that does not include any other areas of the building or school board property. Mallory pointed out Fowler is still free to be just outside her office at the secretary’s desk or anywhere else nearby.
He confirmed that Uzzell also asked to have a trespass warning issued against Julie Brock Lyons on two separate occasions, including one time when, “She requested a trespass warning be issued to her for the entire property,” Mallory said. That posed a problem because Lyons has children in school. Meggs advised the sheriff’s office to put the matter before the school board.
Another time, the superintendent said Lyons had secretly recorded a conversation between the two. Mallory researched the complaint and while it could not be proven that their conversation was recorded, he determined, “If the conversation was about school business, it was not a protected part of speech.”