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Saturday, Sep 23, 2017
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Former Hillsborough Head Start CFO's conviction overturned

TAMPA - Fraud convictions for the former chief financial officer of Hillsborough County's Head Start were overturned on Friday by an appeals court that said there was no evidence Michael Jimenez had anything to do with getting the program to spend $9,000 on a children's book written by his wife. Jimenez was convicted in federal court in July 2011 of two counts of fraud. The jury acquitted him of conspiracy in the trial. He was sentenced to three years probation. On Friday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals handed the case back to the trail court with instructions to enter an order of acquittal. Jimenez's wife, Johana Melendez Santiago, and Jimenez's former colleague, Marie Mason, Head Start's deputy director of program services, were cleared of all charges in connection with the sale to Head Start of the children's book "Travel Boy Helps Sebastian Trapping the Germs" written by Melendez, a microbiologist and Hillsborough Community College instructor.
The book was about pathogens and their relationships to disease, and some at Head Start felt it may have been written at a grade level above the children enrolled in the program. Mason did ask others at Head Start whether the book was appropriate. Head Start is a program that offers preschool educational opportunities to disadvantaged youths. Prosecutors said Jimenez, who had worked with the program since 2007, had the county buy the book through the health division of Head Start, which typically doesn't buy books. But, the appellate court said it was Mason who approved the purchase of the book, not Jimenez. "No reasonable jury could have found otherwise," the court said. "It was Mason who asked (a Head Start colleague) for her opinion of (the book) … it was Mason who initiated the purchase." The court, in a decision handed down on Friday, said: "We hold that the prosecution's evidence could not have demonstrated that Jimenez misapplied Head Start's funds. The ruling continued: "Admittedly, Jimenez did not disclose his wife's financial stake in the transaction, but we are reluctant to metamorphose every municipal misstep into a federal crime."

kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760
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