Celestine Miller pleads not guilty in bid-rigging

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While Miller, who was in a wheelchair due to recent back surgery, was free on a $1 million personal cognizant bond, the residents in School District 29 and elected officials were divided over the case and the role the former superintendent and longtime teacher played.

"It is very sad," said City Councilman Archie Spigner (D-St. Albans). "I have known and worked with her for a number of years and I find it hard to believe she could be guilty of using her responsibility, obligation and power to harm the children of the district. I can't believe she is guilty of something this foul to deprive the children."

The Queens district attorney charged Miller and her husband William Harris with accepting more than $1 million in homes and cash for a computer bid-rigging scheme, which netted $3.1 million on $6.3 million worth of contracts to install computers in 15 of the district's schools.

The money for the computer labs came from the then Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew after he designated the school district under Miller's leadership as a test case for upgrading the city school systems computer education.

Shelia Pecoraro, former District 29 school board member and president of the 105th Police Precinct Council, was not supportive of Miller. She accused Miller of harming the district.

"I think what she did to this district is a disgrace," Pecoraro said. "The computers are only one of the many things she did and didn't get caught. She hurt the students, staff and the parents ... it is truly a disgrace."

She said the district continues to pay for everything the former superintendent did. Pecoraro pointed out that if Miller had followed the rules and regulations, District 29 would have a superintendent and the two-year battle with the Board of Education over who should run the district in her place would never have materialized.

"I was on the board when it appointed her as superintendent," Pecoraro said. "The original vote was 7-2, but when we went to the public with the vote, it was unanimous. I changed my vote for self-preservation. Everyone needed to work with her. I am sorry now."

Miller, who was the principal of IS 59 at 132-55 Ridgedale St. in Springfield Gardens, was picked to educate the district's 27,000 students in 28 schools in 1993. She was fired in February 1999 by Crew for delaying to report that an 8-year-old boy had gone to a Rosedale school carrying a loaded gun.

Since Miller's dismissal, the school district, which stretches from Queens Village to Laurelton and from Jamaica to Springfield Gardens, has been in turmoil. The district has had an acting interim superintendent, its school board has been suspended and then reinstated, and it now has a district administrator running the district.

Schools Chancellor Harold Levy tapped Michael Johnson to run the district until a suitable candidate could be found. It is widely believed that Levy backs Johnson for the permanent job.

Miller, 59, and her 82-year-old husband were indicted along with Thomas Kontogiannis, 51, the owner of 11 companies and the building that houses the school district's offices; Ray Shain, 44, an attorney and owner of a computer consulting firm; Kinson Tso, 34, owner of the company that was awarded the schools computer contracts; and Eric Ruland, 31, a paralegal who worked for Shain.

According to Queens DA Richard Brown, the group conspired to rig the bidding process for the computer contract by submitting forged bids and a real bid from Business Innovative Technology - Tso's company. This ensured that BIT would get the contract and created the appearance of competitive bidding, he said.

The six defendants were indicted Nov. 1. Miller and her husband were each released on $1 million personal cognizant bond, Kontogiannis on $100,000 bail, Ray Shain, Eric Ruland and Tso on their own recognizance.

Miller refused to comment on the indictments, but her lawyer Ronald Russo said "this case is not going to hold up." He said Miller was a distinguished educator who was charged with a crime she did not commit.

Sharon Creary, a parent who has three children in District 29, said she was ecstatic at the investigation by Levy, Brown and Special Schools investigator Edward Stancik and the subsequent indictments. She said the children in the district were suffering due to the lack of up-to-date computers.

"Every call I have gotten is from people who are saddened by the incidents," said Nathaniel Washington, president of School Board 29. "These are serious allegations and we will see what happens when it goes to court and justice is served."

Pecoraro said the SB 29 members who were on the board under Miller's reign as superintendent of the district were Leroy Comrie, Timothy James, Morshed Alam, Rosa Browne and Washington.

Under Miller's term as superintendent Comrie said "we did not have access to the bids, the contract selection or even the books."

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