Gagnon formally requests hearing in Manatee High baseball investigation

He formally request to be reinstated as district's assistant superintendent

jlembo@bradenton.comDecember 21, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Former Manatee High principal Robert Gagnon has formally requested an administrative hearing after school district officials recommended he be suspended 10 days without pay for not cooperating in the investigation of the school's baseball program.

Gagnon's attorney, Robert Reinhart, said an answer to the complaint was filed Friday.

Gagnon is questioning whether an investigation into alleged financial improprieties involving Manatee High School's baseball program was "conducted as an objective, fair, independent investigation" and claims there are "disputed issues of material fact."

There is a current contract for the program, the Herald has learned, covering June 1, 2013 to Dec. 31, 2013. Superintendent Rick Mills is one of the signatories approving the contract. Mills spearheaded the district's investigation into the baseball program.

Manatee football coach and athletic director Joe Kinnan is also facing a 10-day suspension, as well as a demotion after the investigation alleged Kinnan "failed to maintain honesty in his professional dealings."

Kinnan's attorney, Douglas Peebles, said Friday they plan to file for a hearing, as well, but haven't done so yet.

According to a 264-page investigation released Monday, the district is alleging Gagnon and Kinnan worked to steer internal funds toward financing The Sandlot @5-Tools, a baseball facility in downtown Bradenton owned by Dwayne Strong.

Strong resigned as Manatee's baseball coach Oct. 31 over alleged financial improprieties.

According to the investigation, parents of Manatee's baseball players voiced concerns that there was a "pay-to-play" system, where Strong showed favoritism to players who paid to use his facility. Some parents who couldn't afford to send their sons to 5Tools were afraid the players would be penalized.

The report claims that Gagnon asked Manatee's booster club to give $5,000 to the high school. The school would then give the money to Strong, though Gagnon denied this in an interview with an investigator and claimed any agreement between 5Tools and the high school was drawn up by Kinnan.

The current contract for the program states that the program isn't to exceed $10,500. Kinnan, Gagnon and school district administrators, along with Mills, signed the contract, which under the heading "services to be provided" was for "monthly memberships for batting cages of the baseball program at Manatee High."

Mills was the one who spearheaded the investigation of the baseball program because "the district was alerted of what has been going on," said Stephen Valley, the district's spokesman.

"The contract is vetted and signed by several people," Valley added. "It is vetted at the school level first, by two or three people there, before it is passed on to the district. By the time it gets to the superintendent's desk, it has already been cleared by several people."

Because it was considered cleared, Mills signed off, Valley said.

"It's the responsibility of the staff to ensure the accuracy and validity of the check requests that Mr. Mills signs any documents as is the case for all organizations (public, private, governmental, high tech or educational). The superintendent signs hundreds of documents per week for many different contracts, etc.," Valley said in an e-mail to the Herald.

The report also shows Manatee High made four payments of $1,500 each to 5Tools, which were prepared and signed by Strong, Kinnan and current principal Don Sauer.

"It's funny that Gagnon and Kinnan were found to be misleading the investigator when it was all transparent," Reinhart said. "The current principal, Mr. Sauer, signed those contracts, yet he isn't being charged."

One contract drawn up in 2009 from the district to 5Tools was for 10 months at $500 a month, with "use of batting cages and weight room" listed as services to be provided.

That agreement was from August 2009 to May 2010 and signed by Strong, Kinnan and former assistant superintendent Lynette Edwards in October 2009. The superintendent's signature was illegible, but Tim McGonegal was in that role at the time. The accusations in the district's report state Kinnan and Gagnon "worked in concert to improperly steer MHS funds to 5Tools, so MHS baseball players could access and utilize 5Tools' facilities to the private benefit of Strong."

Reinhart said that isn't true, and that the hope was that all members of the team could use 5Tools.

"When it first started, the whole idea of it was if kids were going to use the facility, there would be no chance of any of the kids getting special treatment," he said. "Coach Strong never said any of the kids were going to get special treatment, but we just wanted to be sure there wasn't an appearance of that.

"That was the whole purpose of it, and now it's turned into them steering funds away from Manatee High."

Gagnon is requesting the suspension tied to the baseball investigation not be granted and that he be reinstated as the district's assistant superintendent.

He has been suspended without pay since October, accused of not reporting alleged incidents of child abuse by Rod Frazier, a former assistant football coach at Manatee High School. In the complaint filed Friday, Gagnon is also requesting his salary be reinstated and wants to be awarded back pay, and that his right to benefits, including sick pay, vacation pay and contributions to his retirement, also be reinstated.

Gagnon also wants to be awarded withheld benefits and is asking for compensation for attorney's fees and "costs incurred in this action."

John Lembo, sports reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7057. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLembo1878.

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