On Tuesday, former Montgomery County Public Schools interim chief school financial officer (CSFO) Brenda Palmer pleaded guilty to two felony ethics charges and two felony counts of lying to the Attorney General's Office about a matter under investigation.
Palmer's trial was set to begin Monday. Instead, she pleaded guilty to all four counts of the indictment against her. Because of Palmer's previous conviction of first-degree property theft, she will be sentenced as a habitual felony offender.
"Betraying the public's trust is never acceptable and will not be tolerated in our state," said Attorney General Steve Marshall. "In this case, Mrs. Palmer's brazen corruption and utter disregard for the law was astonishing. My office will continue to identify and prosecute those exploiting the public sector for personal gain."
Palmer served as the interim CSFO for the Montgomery Public Schools (MPS) system. During that time, she enacted a fraudulent billing scheme that deceived MPS out of $291,367 between November 2017 and April 2019. Her accomplice, Walter James, the former vice-principal of then-Jefferson Davis High School, pleaded guilty in both state and federal court for his role in the scheme and is serving a 60-month prison term.
Palmer faces 10-99 years on the two ethics charges and 2-20 years on the lying charges.
According to Marshall's office, Palmer voluntarily sat down for two interviews with State investigators during the investigation. During both interviews, Palmer repeatedly lied to the Attorney General's Office about her knowledge of the scheme, role in the project, relationship with Walter James, and virtually every other aspect of the State's investigation. Palmer even lied about speaking with James just two weeks prior. However, James had already begun cooperating with state and federal authorities and agreed to record a phone call with Palmer. During that call, Palmer instructed James not to send text messages, to tell authorities that specific addresses for the fraudulent companies used to exist, that he didn't see her when he got the bogus checks, and "to put [the crime] on the white boy," a third party who worked in the Accounts Payable Department of MPS.
James submitted fraudulent invoices from nearly a dozen non-existent companies that purported to provide various MPS entities with books, professional development, and other goods or services as part of their scheme. After James created the fraudulent invoices (with the help of Palmer), Palmer used her position as CSFO to ensure they were paid without attracting attention.
Palmer's efforts to avoid detection included forging at least two employees' names on checks and other written instruments and directing subordinate employees to work overtime to prepare legitimate checks so that the fraudulent ones would be less likely to be noticed. Palmer then pulled out the fraudulent checks from the legitimate ones so that James could pick them up personally. This was necessary because the face of the checks showed addresses for the fake companies that were either non-existent or otherwise undeliverable. After James deposited the checks, he paid Palmer with cash in the amounts she demanded, as documented by text messages.
When examiners with the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts began their yearly audit of the MPS system in 2019, they requested supporting documents for many of the fraudulent checks. Palmer was asked to help produce some of those check files. Instead of providing those check files, Palmer shredded them and claimed that she bypassed procedures because she just wanted to get vendors paid. When confronted by the new CSFO, Palmer resigned, walking away with her pension, which she earned until pleading guilty.
To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email email@example.com.
Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.