Ex-School Board member Donna Korn cleared in ethics probe related to beach house stay
South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis | December 07, 2022
Former Broward School Board member Donna Korn and district administrator Shawn Cerra have been cleared in an ethics probe related to their weekend stays at a vendor’s beach house.
Both stayed multiple times at the Marco Island home of Chuck Puleri, the Broward Herff Jones distributor who for years was the exclusive vendor of caps and gowns for Broward schools. A series of South Florida Sun Sentinel investigations and a district-initiated audit revealed that the company had charged parents prices higher than what they submitted when they bid.
Korn had voted on Puleri’s contracts while Cerra oversaw graduations in his role as director of student activities.
Korn told investigators she had paid Puleri for the trips, while Cerra said he paid for dinners to offset the cost of the lodging. The commission, which met in closed session Friday, found insufficient evidence the trips influenced any decisions the two made related to caps and gowns, according to a report released Wednesday.
“I appreciate the opportunity to work with the commission to share my side of the story,” Cerra told the Sun Sentinel on Wednesday afternoon. “Ultimately, truth prevailed.”
Korn didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Complaints against Korn were filed a year ago by Broward residents Amy Shield and John Daly, moderators of the Facebook group Concerned Citizens of Broward County, following a report by the Sun Sentinel. Shield also filed a separate complaint against Cerra.korn-advocates-recommendation
“We felt it was our civic duty to pursue the only avenue available to prompt further investigation of the relationship between a vendor that overcharged parents and students, and a School Board member that was an ardent supporter of that vendor,” Daly told the Sun Sentinel. “We respect the findings of the commission and appreciate their work.”
Korn told investigators she and her three children stayed two nights in August 2016 and one night in March 2017 at the $1.1 million home Puleri owns in the Isles of Capri residential neighborhood. However, ethics officials only considered the 2017 visit for action because the earlier trip fell outside a five-year statute of limitations.
State law and school district policy prohibit School Board members from accepting a gift of more than $50 from a vendor. The state calculates the value of staying at someone’s home as $44 per night, regardless of how expensive the home is. Korn provided emails showing she checked with the district legal department in August 2016 before the first trip.
District lawyer Robert Vignola told Korn if she stayed two nights, the value would be $88, above the $50 threshold, so she would need to pay Puleri $38, according to an email contained in the investigative file.
Korn submitted checks showing she paid Puleri for the first trip. However, on the 2017 trip, she told investigators she forgot her checkbook and paid Puleri $50 cash. Puleri corroborated her story.
“While Puleri is a vendor, [Korn] did not receive a gift from a vendor. In addition, the value of the lodging did not meet the threshold value for a violation,” the Ethics Commission report said.
The commission also determined that Korn “had no intent to solicit or accept the lodging based on the understanding that her vote, official action, or judgment would be influenced.”
Korn was a School Board member from 2011 until Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended her in August related to a grand jury report that focused on issues related to the Parkland shooting and a district construction program. She sought to reclaim her seat in a November runoff election but lost to opponent Allen Zeman.
Cerra, a former principal, has been a district employee since the early 1990s and has had his current director job since 2016. He is also a Coral Springs city commissioner.
Unlike Korn, Cerra said he never paid Puleri to stay at his house, but he paid for restaurant meals. He stayed with Puleri in May 2019 and March 2021. Under a state law that governs administrators Cerra is allowed to stay at a vendor’s house but must report it if the value exceeds $100.
“When I go to his house, or anyone’s house that I’m staying at, I’m paying for my way 100% of the time,” Cerra told investigators. “On one particular night, I paid and brought dinner on Friday night, and then when we went out on Saturday night I paid for the entire meal. So on that particular trip, out of pocket for me, was somewhere in the neighborhood of $240.”cerra-advocates-recommendation
Cerra didn’t report his stays with Puleri as gifts.
“I was nowhere near the threshold for reporting a gift because I did not receive any gift except for staying at his house and riding on his boat for about an hour and a half,” Cerra told an investigator.
Cerra also attended a party for administrators and others at the Funky Buddha brewery in Oakland Park, sponsored by Puleri in June 2021.
But the commission didn’t find that to be a violation either. The total party cost $2,595 and the per-person value was $50, which is below the $100 threshold for reporting gifts, the investigation said.
The party happened while Puleri was waiting to hear if he got an exclusive three-year, caps-and-gowns contract with the district. Cerra helped set up the selection committee in March 2021, and three of four committee members worked on his staff, emails show. The committee selected Herff Jones and eliminated competitor Jostens.
“Three of the four 2021 committee members provided statements to the Commission’s investigator and they each advised that [Cerra] never spoke to him/her about the committee’s work regarding graduation regalia and each member indicated why he/she voted for Herff Jones instead of Jostens,” the report said.
The district started the bidding process over again after the Sun Sentinel investigations. A new contract was awarded in early 2022 and both Herff Jones and Jostens now have business in the district.
But the district’s relationship with Puleri and Herff Jones are in limbo, following the release of the audit, which revealed the district had overbilled parents and students by $331,181 during the 2020-21 school year.
The audit also found that Puleri failed to supply required invoices to schools and told auditors four years of invoices had been deleted or shredded. The state Attorney’s Office confirmed Tuesday it’s investigating the matter.
The School Board voted unanimously Nov. 14 to cancel all Herff Jones contracts but is now reconsidering after company officials said Tuesday the audit contained errors. Some schools have also voiced concerns that cutting off Herff Jones could disrupt yearbook production since the company is also one of several yearbook vendors in the district.
Company officials have been given a week to meet with auditors.
The School Board is expected to take final action on Tuesday.