The disgraced former head of a Seattle Public Schools small-business program pleaded guilty Monday to 36 counts of theft for a scheme in which he received kickbacks after awarding no-work contracts to a Tacoma nonprofit.
Silas Potter Jr., 62, pleaded guilty in King County Superior Court to 30 counts of first-degree theft and six counts of second-degree theft involving more than $168,000 in public money.
In the 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 Johnson, who ran the nonprofit, which billed the district for classes it was supposedly teaching to small-business owners.
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Potter is to be sentenced June 21. He faces 43 to 57 months in prison, under the standard sentencing range. Prosecutors say they will recommend the low end of that range. A judge is not bound by the lawyers’ agreement and could impose a different sentence.
Potter also agreed to testify against Johnson, who is to go to trial on theft charges next month. A third person involved in the scheme, Lorrie Kay Sorensen, has pleaded guilty to one theft charge.
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 all came crashing down when Potter became a central figure in the 2011 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.
Before the audit report hit, Potter’s program was shuttered; he left the district and moved to Florida, where he worked as a consultant to a roller-rink project. He was charged with theft in October 2011 and later arrested after failing to appear at a court hearing on the charges.
In an interview before his arrest, Potter denied he had received any kickbacks and told The Seattle Times he’d been “thrown under the bus” by higher-ups at the school district. He pleaded not guilty to the theft charges in December 2011.
With a plea deal in the works, Potter was jailed again over the weekend on a $100,000 warrant issued when he failed to show up at a recent court hearing.
Potter’s public defenders did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday.
He was released Monday on a $10,000 bond pending his sentencing, agreeing to check in with a community-supervision program.
In a statement through a spokeswoman, Seattle Public Schools said the district is “pleased to close this chapter” and noted “strong checks and balances” are being created to prevent similar problems from arising.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.