Trial begins in 42 counts of theft from Seattle schools
Former Seattle schools official Silas Potter Jr. testifies against former friend and alleged co-conspirator David A. Johnson at trial.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Silas Potter Jr. — who pleaded guilty to 36 counts of theft for stealing funds from a Seattle Public Schools program — testified against his former friend and accused co-conspirator on Monday.
As lead witness for the prosecution, Potter testified before a King County Superior Court jury that he and David A. Johnson submitted invoices to the school district for work that was never done.
Johnson is charged with 42 counts of theft.
According to prosecutors, Potter used his position promoting the district’s use of minority-owned businesses to steal from the district between 2006 and 2010 by awarding contracts to firms that did little or no work.
In one instance, state auditors found, the district paid $14,505 for video-surveillance cabling and conduit that auditors estimated was worth $1,054.
Prosecutors allege that one of those firms was Johnson’s nonprofit, Tacoma-based Grace of Mercy. Prosecutors say that Johnson and a former girlfriend, Lorrie Kay Sorensen, created a second fraudulent business, Emerald City Cleaning, to take advantage of the Seattle district’s flawed program.
Johnson allegedly told police the nonprofit and business were a “front for getting easy money from the school district.”
The cleaning company was set up to receive payments that were ostensibly for janitorial services after classes. The district was billed $83,000 over two months, according to a police report.
Potter pleaded guilty in April to 36 counts of theft and, as part of his plea deal, agreed to testify against Johnson.
Potter faces a standard sentence range of 43 to 57 months in prison, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Johnson’s attorney, David Adler, said in his opening statement that Potter was testifying against Johnson in an effort to shave time off his own sentence and was not to be trusted.
“After Potter testifies, you will ask, ‘Does anyone believe him?’ ” said Adler.
The program Potter oversaw started small but grew into a $1 million-a-year effort that was praised by some prominent minority-community leaders, including some who were paid as consultants.
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 that 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.
On the stand, Potter testified that he occasionally forged Johnson’s name on contracts. He said that made it hard for him to say definitely whether it was he, or Johnson, who signed certain documents admitted into evidence.
Potter also said that he didn’t screen Johnson, or any of the other contractors he worked with on the basis of “skills or qualifications.” Instead, Potter said, he assumed that as contractors they would know how to network, talk to or perform “outreach” with other contractors.
Further, Potter said that while he OK’d a contract that would allow Johnson to bill the district between $50 and $100 an hour for outreach, teaching and maintaining a computer database, he didn’t think Johnson was smart enough to either teach or maintain the database.
“I did not think he had the capacity ... the acumen to work with computers on that level,” said Potter.
The financial scandal cost the late former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and the district’s chief financial officer their jobs, but only Potter, Johnson and Sorenson were criminally charged.
Sorensen pleaded guilty to one count of theft. She and Potter are scheduled to be sentenced in November, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said Johnson’s trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
Christine Clarridge can be reached at email@example.com or 206-464-8983.