The Tulane Hullabaloo

Google search reveals criminal record of 15 charges, director of teaching certification program fired

Kate Jamison, Print News Editor

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Tulane terminated the contract of Donna Johnson, the director of the teaching certification program, on Oct. 1 following an investigation that found Johnson was indicted on 15 different charges of aggravated theft and tampering with financial records, among other charges.

She was indicted in 2007 after a state audit of the Imani Institute, a charter school in Ohio where Johnson was the superintendent from 2001 to 2005. The audit claimed Johnson and her husband were responsible for more than $340,000 of unaccounted funds.

Tulane issued a statement regarding her termination.

“Following an investigation, Donna Johnson is no longer employed by Tulane University, effective Oct. 1,” the statement read. “It is Tulane University’s policy not to comment on confidential personnel matters.”

An anonymous tip to Johnson’s department suggesting that her co-workers Google search her name prompted Tulane’s investigation into her past, WWL-TV New Orleans reported Oct. 3.

The university did not conduct a background check on Johnson before it hired her, Executive Director of Public Relations Mike Strecker said. 

“Background checks are done for all new hires at Tulane University with the exception of faculty and student hires,” Strecker said. “This is in keeping with the practices of many universities throughout the country.”

Johnson was hired as an adjunct professor in the teaching certification program three semesters before she was promoted to director in July 2014, WWL-TV New Orleans reported. 

A background check is not required to learn of Johnson’s criminal past, however. A simple Google search of the term “Donna Johnson Imani Institute” produces results saying Johnson pleaded guilty to theft charges and owes thousands of dollars to the Cleveland school board.

Sophomore Gwen Ivey said she was surprised that Tulane doesn’t perform background checks on professors.

“That doesn’t seem right,” Ivey said. “Googling someone is such an easy thing to do. Why wouldn’t they just search for her?”

Sophomore Frankie Lynch said Tulane should do background checks for faculty.

“That makes me uncomfortable,” Lynch said. “Students interact with professors all the time. They are such a huge part of campus.”

In 2003, the state of Ohio flagged Imani Institute’s regular audit for suspicious purchases of gasoline, food and clothing. School officials were also unable to provide financial records for that year. Auditor of State Betty Montgomery ordered a special audit report of the school for 2003 to investigate the suspicious purchases and missing financial information. The complete special audit eventually stretched to cover the years 2001 to 2005.

During her time at Imani, Johnson failed to maintain financial records properly, according to the audit. Invoices, purchase orders and quarterly and annual financial reports were not kept.

Public money was spent on non-educational purposes such as renovations to Johnson’s home, computers, meals at restaurants, airfare, hotels, gasoline and furniture, the audit states. Johnson made purchases at Ann Taylor, Coach and Ticketmaster.

Imani officials failed to provide receipt books or revenue and expense ledgers throughout the special audit. Montgomery subpoenaed records from Imani’s financial institutions to examine Imani bank accounts.

The audit issued recovery findings totaling $340,782, with an additional $482,959 in unsupported expenditures using federal funds. The Imani Institute’s charter contract expired in June 2005. The school was unable to reopen due to a lack of a new sponsor.

Shortly after the Imani Institute closed in 2005, Johnson moved to California and opened a new charter school, the Jola Community School in Mount Hope, California. The San Diego Unified School District approved the new school’s charter on April 12, 2005. The school opened in Sept. 2005 and closed in Nov. 2005 due to lack of students, facilities and money.

Montgomery sent a copy of the Ohio special audit report to the California Department of Education and the San Diego Unified School District for informational purposes, according to the audit. After Johnson and her husband were indicted in January 2007 in Ohio, the SDUSD audited Jola’s finances, Union-Tribune San Diego reported. The Hullabaloo was unable to obtain a copy of the Jola Community School audit. Johnson was not criminally charged in California.

Carol Whelan, interim director and professor of practice in the teaching certification department, did not respond to requests for comment. 

UPDATE 11/12/2014 11:41 p.m.

Tulane University officials have investigated financial records related to Donna Johnson, the former director of the teaching certification program who was fired Oct. 1. The university terminated Johnson’s contract after a Google search revealed her criminal past. 

“Tulane reviewed all financial transactions and travel expenses involving Donna Johnson and found no evidence of any impropriety,” Executive Director of Public Relations Michael Strecker said.  

Additional reporting by Armando Marin, online news editor.

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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans
Google search reveals criminal record of 15 charges, director of teaching certification program fired