An allegedly "missing" $80,000 in the Cave Creek School District's cafeteria budget has sparked an all-out food fight in the northeast Valley over accusations of a government cover-up and of stolen rations of ham and cheese.

Amid the finger-pointing--which by now has enveloped the state Attorney General's Office--nobody knows exactly what happened to the money. Superintendent David Alexander confirms that the school district actually had a $76,000 shortfall in its food-services budget in the 1987-88 and 1988-89 school years. Whether the money was actually missing or mismanaged is in dispute; the state auditor general is currently reviewing the records.

Talk around town of what may or may not have happened to the money, as well as why the subsequent investigation has taken so long, has taken on a life of its own in the Cave Creek-Carefree community, where some residents shoot from the hip and then quickly point out how easily rumors spread.

The rumors are good n' plenty. Among them: ex-employees ran an after-hours catering business in the high school cafeteria; workers pilfered money from the cafeteria; food was traded for television sets and fur coats; cases of food were missing from a district warehouse at Cactus Shadows High School.

No charges have been filed against anybody, but the accusations go around the table and even back to the superintendent, who in turn denies them.

Investigations, or the lack thereof, into the matter have produced biting critiques. Among them: the school administration is covering up and stonewalling the Attorney General's Office; the Attorney General's Office did nothing with the case after initially receiving it; school officials never gave the AG the complete story in the first place. Officials in both the school district and attorney general's offices say the issue has been turned into a hot potato by former district employee Gene Dannatt, an outspoken critic of school officials who is running for the school board.

Dannatt, also a parent in the district, threw the issue back into the fire last month after it had all but slipped from public view. But he's not alone. The area's weekly newspaper, the Foothills Sentinel, has devoted a lot of space to the controversy over the last month, including front-page stories, an editorial supporting Dannatt and letters to the editor.

Now the players involved are rushing to explain their actions--or inactions. "It's 'cover your ass' from all sides," says Linda Ritchie, publisher of the Sentinel.

"You can go into a grocery store and people ask you about it," says Jeri Robertson, the school district's secretary. "It's a hot local issue here."
The mystery began in December 1989, when Bill Greaves, the newly hired administrative services director, discovered "discrepancies" in the food-services budget during the two previous school years. In prior years, he says, the program had run itself--revenue from school lunches and other sales covered the majority of the service's expenses. But even though the student population increased in each of those years, cafeteria revenues didn't go up, Greaves says, and school officials ended up having to appropriate $38,000 from the general budget for two consecutive years to pay some food-service workers' wages.

School-board officials say their legal counsel, aware of similar cases, suggested they take the information on the "discrepancies" to the Attorney General's Office.

Alexander and Greaves say the food-services director at the time, Wilma Gamertsfelder, couldn't explain what happened. She resigned, along with assistant Wanda Williams. Gamertsfelder could not be reached for comment. Williams strongly denies any wrongdoing and says tumult at the time caused them to resign.

Past and present employees tell New Times that they either saw or heard of food being stolen. "I saw whole hams going out of there," says Don Zvara, former head of maintenance for the district.

Another food-service employee says "there were cases of food missing all the time."

In February 1990, district officials met with an attorney general's investigator and provided files he requested. The officials say they were told not to look into the matter further on their own, as it could hamper the AG's investigation.

Greaves and Alexander say they passed on what they knew to the Attorney General's Office. "I've heard everything from a catering service to 'food-walking' [stealing] to overexpenditures," says Alexander. "We didn't sit here and say, 'Here is the rumor list we hear.'"

Steve Tseffos, spokesman for Attorney General Grant Woods, says the investigator looked at the information, didn't see any obvious criminal activity and "shelved it." (Tseffos is quick to point out that the initial look came under the administration of the previous attorney general, Bob Corbin.)

The situation came to a boil last month when Gene Dannatt, a former security aide for the district who now is a candidate for the board, demanded to know where the investigation stood. Dannatt said at the time that he wanted the situation cleared up before the November election because three of the five board members weren't running for reelection. "It is only right that they help clear the table before that time," Dannatt declared at a September board meeting. Dannatt said he had heard allegations of food pilfering while he was an employee of the district.

But when the Sentinel quoted Tseffos saying that the attorney general could not find "any criminality or any real problem" and was turning the case over to the auditor general, the pot exploded. Dannatt and another parent, aware of workers that supposedly had never been interviewed, filed an official complaint with the attorney general. (Tseffos later complained that the Sentinel's article wrongly implied his office's investigation was over; he says the case is still open.)

Finger-pointing and accusations of a cover-up began. The school issued a detailed, three-page press release defending its actions. "It was a rarity," secretary Robertson says of the press release. (A copy of the unusual document hung last week on a bulletin board in the district office next to a calendar detailing the district's Halloween activities.)

Dannatt and others have complained that allegations of theft never were passed on to the attorney general. They also complain that the employees who reportedly witnessed thefts weren't even interviewed by the school.

"Does it sound like a cover-up to you?" asks board member Gloria Dahlquist, who has feuded with superintendent David Alexander in the past and is not running for reelection. "For three years, for it to still be under investigation seems to be a bit much."
Alexander laughs at the accusation of a cover-up, pointing out that his office originally alerted the attorney general. "Why would I stonewall something I made the call on?" Alexander says.

In Dannatt's complaint filed on September 30 with the Attorney General's Office, he and another parent, Keith Myers, listed names of past and present employees who reportedly witnessed alleged wrongdoing. The Attorney General's Office won't comment on specifics, but several people confirm that a round of questioning has started.

Among those contacted by the AG was Wanda Williams, the former assistant to the food-service director. Williams strongly denies stealing food or running a catering business on the side; she accuses the superintendent of taking two crates of school cheese to a function catered by his wife.

"I was not running a catering business," Williams says. "It infuriates me that anybody would accuse me of taking food." She says the rumors may have started because she and her former boss, Wilma Gamertsfelder, used to talk about starting their own business after leaving the school. Williams says she often loaded up her car with food to take to another school in the district.

She also says that at the end of the 1987-88 school year, the cafeteria's books showed a surplus of $17,000; when she returned in the fall, there "was not one dime." Nobody explained to them what happened to the money, she says.

Alexander denies that he took cheese to his wife, who does private catering. Alexander also says he's unaware of the $17,000 Wanda Williams is referring to.

District official Bill Greaves says it's possible the books were merely kept so badly that the numbers came out wrong. "It's possible they could've screwed it up so badly that they turned those numbers out," says Greaves. (At press time, Greaves was scheduled to review the food-service budget at the October 13 board meeting. The session promised to be lively. Also on tap was a discussion of the alleged bugging of the office of a district employee.)

Tseffos and the district officials say the issue is being blown out of proportion by Dannatt, one of four candidates running for three seats on the board. Dannatt replies: "A small community tries to discredit you if you make waves." Also caught in the storm is the Sentinel, which issued its own accusations after the Attorney General's Office called publisher Linda Ritchie to complain about a story.

Editor Marianne Lasby defended the paper in an editorial last week: "We reported what the attorney general's spokesman told us--that the information was turned over to the Auditor General's Office. . . . Had there been any indication that the probe of the Attorney General's Office would continue, we would have reported it." The editorial went on to say: "Like the dauntless duo of Dannatt and Myers, the Sentinel also smells something rotten--either within the school district or with the way the Attorney General's Office handled the matter. . . .

"After all, we're talking about $80,000 of your money. And, like Messrs. Dannatt and Myers, we believe you have a right to know what happened to it.

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Dave Newbart