Silas Potter Jr., the disgraced former head of a Seattle Public Schools small-business program, was sentenced Friday to three years and seven months in prison for accepting about $80,000 in kickbacks from a contractor who did no work.
“I let down a lot of people,” a contrite Potter said as he stood with a cane before King County Superior Court Judge Michael Trickey. He singled out his two teenage sons and the business program.
Trickey imposed the sentence after labeling Potter’s actions a “significant breach of the public trust.”
Potter, 62, pleaded guilty in April to 36 counts of theft in a case that rocked the school district when the financial scandal publicly emerged in early 2011.
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In a plea agreement, Potter admitted he approved dozens of school-district checks paying for services from a Tacoma nonprofit called Grace of Mercy, while “knowing no work had been completed.”
In return, Potter said, he received some of that money back from David A. Johnson, who ran the nonprofit, which billed the district for classes it was supposedly teaching to small-business owners.
Johnson was convicted Nov. 8 by a Superior Court jury of 30 counts of first-degree theft and six counts of second-degree theft. At trial, Potter testified against Johnson, who is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 10.
Between 2007 and 2010, Potter and Johnson agreed to bill the school district $168,275 for training that was never performed, according to court documents.
Checks for falsified work invoices were mailed to Grace of Mercy at Johnson’s home address.
Potter admitted Johnson returned about half the money to him in cash.
Trickey agreed to combined sentences totaling 43 months recommended by Senior Deputy Prosecutors Scott Peterson and Kathleen Van Olst — below the potential of up to 57 months.
In a pre-sentence report, they argued that Potter didn’t deserve further leniency for his testimony against Johnson, describing him as a “very reluctant witness.”
Potter’s attorney, public defender Seth Conant, urged Trickey to impose a 90-day term under a first-time offender exception, with credit for time served since Potter’s arrest.
Conant cited Potter’s remorse, as well as what he described as his client’s serious health issues. Potter suffers from an array of health ailments, including chronic kidney disease and coronary problems.
After the hearing, Conant said Potter could be eligible for up to 8½ months of credit for time served.
Under the sentence, Potter and Johnson are jointly responsible for restitution of $168,275.
As the head of the school district’s Regional Small Business Development Program from 2006 to 2010, Potter oversaw efforts to teach minority- and women-owned businesses how to better compete for public contracts.
The program started small, but Potter, a former furniture salesman, grew it into a $1 million-a-year effort that was praised by some prominent minority community leaders, including some who were paid as consultants.
But it came crashing down when Potter became a central figure in the financial scandal that erupted after a state audit found he had abused his authority and potentially squandered millions of dollars in public money.
Auditors discovered Potter’s program had spent $280,000 for work that was not done or didn’t benefit the district — including the payments to Grace of Mercy — and $1.5 million more for services that were poorly documented or of questionable value.
A follow-up audit last year turned up $1.3 million more in suspicious payments, finding Potter had approved inflated invoices to vendors charging double or even 10 times the usual rate for services.
The audits and a related school-district report portrayed an office that Potter had turned into a personal fiefdom, doling out public contracts to favored vendors while spending time on school computers looking at computer dating and gambling sites.
His conduct was abetted, the reports found, by superiors who failed to rein him in despite warnings.
The fallout led the Seattle School Board to fire then-Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, who died at age 55 last year after battling cancer.
A third defendant, Lorrie Kay Sorensen, Johnson’s onetime girlfriend and a lesser player in the case, was sentenced by Trickey Friday to 60 days of home detention with electronic monitoring. She was ordered to pay $83,429 in restitution.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.