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Originally published November 8, 2011 at 9:28 AM | Page modified November 9, 2011 at 8:39 AM

Suspect in schools scandal a no-show in court

An arrest warrant was issued Tuesday for Silas Potter Jr., the central figure in the Seattle Public Schools financial scandal, after he failed to appear for arraignment in an alleged scheme to bilk the district out of $250,000.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes I, too, attended the arraignment (covering it for the Save Seattle Schools blog). It... Read more
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As the Seattle Public Schools financial scandal was unfolding in March, Silas Potter Jr. said he was willing to face criminal charges stemming from his former job with the school district.

"Whatever I've done, if there are repercussions, then I'll man up to it," Potter told a Seattle Times reporter during an interview in Tampa, Fla. "If I have to serve time — OK."

On Tuesday, an arrest warrant was issued for Potter, the central figure in the scandal, after he failed to appear for arraignment in an alleged scheme to bilk the district out of $250,000.

Potter, who headed the district's small-business assistance program before moving to Florida, had been scheduled to enter a plea to theft charges filed by King County prosecutors.

Two other defendants, David A. Johnson and Lorrie Kay Sorensen, pleaded not guilty to theft charges during brief appearances in King County Superior Court. Both were allowed to remain free without bail.

Chief Criminal Judge Ronald Kessler issued the bench warrant for Potter, with bail set at $100,000.

The three were charged Oct. 25 with stealing from the small-business program, which aimed to help women- and minority-owned companies learn how to bid on public projects. Prosecutors allege that the defendants used a Tacoma nonprofit and a Seattle cleaning company to bill the district for little or no work.

Scott Peterson, senior deputy King County prosecutor, said efforts to reach Potter over the past several months have been unsuccessful. He said the Prosecutor's Office has learned that Potter has left his job in Florida and disconnected his phone.

"We're afraid he might have fled," Peterson said after the arraignment. "We'll find him."

A onetime furniture repairman, Potter recently had been working as a salesman at a furniture store in Clearwater, Fla., until he stopped showing up in the past several days, a store employee told The Times on Monday.

Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, said a 50-state warrant will be referred to the Pacific Northwest Fugitive Apprehension Task Force. Potter could face extradition if arrested in another state, Goodhew said.

Potter was notified by mail and in phone and email messages of the charges and his summons to appear in court, Goodhew and Peterson said. Peterson said Potter's last contact with law enforcement was in August, when a Seattle police detective interviewed him in Tampa.

It isn't clear if Potter has a passport, Peterson said.

The fugitive task force, which includes U.S. marshals, Seattle police and other law-enforcement officers, will try to locate Potter and seek help from counterparts in Florida or other parts of the country, said Jack Williams, assistant chief deputy U.S. marshal in Seattle.

The financial scandal, triggered by a broader range of findings in a state audit, prompted the Seattle School Board to dismiss Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson in March and replace her with Susan Enfield, the district's chief academic officer, who was named interim superintendent.

Potter, 60, who ran the school district's Regional Small Business Development Program from 2006 to 2010, is accused of approving payments to the nonprofit and cleaning company in exchange for part of $250,000 they received.

Johnson, 48, and his nonprofit, Grace of Mercy, were hired by Potter to teach small businesses how to bid on contracts. Grace of Mercy pocketed $168,000, with a portion kicked back to Potter, prosecutors say.

Sorensen and Johnson also set up a janitorial firm, Emerald City Cleaning, that collected $83,000 from the district, prosecutors say. Sorensen kept $21,000, with Potter and Johnson splitting the remainder, according to the charges.

Potter and Johnson were each charged with nine counts of first-degree theft, punishable by 33 to 43 months in prison. Sorensen, charged with four counts of first-degree theft, could face six to 12 months in jail.

Sorensen, 45, of Henderson, Nev., wants to "tell her side of the story," said her Seattle attorney, Amy Muth.

Sorensen previously ran Seattle escort services that engaged in prostitution, according to court records. She pleaded guilty in 2005 in King County Superior Court to attempted promoting of prostitution. A judge sentenced her to 15 days of electronic home-monitoring on the misdemeanor conviction.

In addition, Sorensen has previous arrests for prostitution in Vancouver, B.C., Washington state, Las Vegas and Honolulu, with convictions in Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., according to court records.

In the school-district case, prosecutors say, Sorensen learned Potter and Johnson were stealing from the district and asked to be included. Sorensen previously lived with Johnson in Renton when he was her boyfriend.

According to charging documents, Potter told the Seattle detective during the August police interview that he conspired with Johnson to obtain money from the school district by creating invoices for classes Johnson never taught. Potter admitted he received cash from Johnson in return, the documents say.

Potter said he received about $1,000 a month from Johnson, explaining that $2,500 monthly allocations found listed on his computer represented his "dream" budget, according to the charges.

Potter left the school district in July 2010, shortly after the district went to state auditors, who eventually questioned the benefit of $1.8 million in contracts awarded by the now-defunct business program.

In the March interview with The Times, Potter complained he was being made a scapegoat, blamed others above him at the district and denied being behind the alleged misappropriation of district funds.

"I've been thrown under the bus," Potter said.

Seattle Times new researchers David Turim and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story, which contains information from Times archives.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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