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Middle Village secretary stole from school: City

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Some children complain when their relatives stop paying their cell phone bills, but when a student at Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College found her minutes were up, she went to her principal and ratted out her grandmother, then a secretary at the school, for allegedly embezzling thousands from her job, according to the special commissioner of investigation for city schools.

Debbie Rizzo, 51, who lives at 66-11 71st St. in Middle Village, allegedly purchased many items for herself with the school’s procurement card and used the account for small items as well as creating false invoices, Special Commissioner Richard Condon said in a letter dated Aug. 24.

He recommended that Rizzo not be rehired for any school position. She had been let go from Middle College, which is located at 45-35 Van Dam St. in Long Island City, on July 1, 2009, a month after the investigation started in June 2009. She had been a temporary employee.

Rizzo has not been charged, but the investigat­ion’s findings have been sent to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

Some of the biggest and most expensive of the items she purchased included a computer, a couch and a washer and dryer, but she allegedly also bought smaller items like stuffed animals, “Webkinz” — stuffed animals that children can register in an online community — ceiling fans and a hamper, Condon said.

The special commissioner’s office’s investigation began when Rizzo’s granddaughter, then 14 but now 16, alerted Middle College HS Principal Linda Siegmund that Rizzo had been buying items for her personal use using the school’s money and gave her a city Department of Education laptop to use when she had been hospitalized in 2008.

“She had not spoken to Rizzo for at least five months because Rizzo was a compulsive liar and had stopped paying [her] telephone bill,” Condon said.

Rizzo could not be located for comment.

Office investigators found Rizzo had allegedly bought numerous items through amazon.com with the school’s card from 2003 to August 2009, many of which were not authorized for school use, including stuffed animals, children’s books, a cotton candy fabric cornice, seven ceiling fans, BlackBerry accessories and an iPod docking station, Condon said.

Rizzo claimed to have signed out the laptop so her granddaughter could do homework, although investigators could not find any documentation to that effect.

When confronted about the purchases, she said some of them, like the stuffed animals and books, may have been for a fair, but claimed others were accidental and said the ceiling fans were personal purchases. She said any personal purchases were an accident, Condon said.

Investigators also found Rizzo allegedly used school funds for her cell phone bill and a car service, both of which cost more than $1,000 each. She also allegedly created invoices for two fictitious companies and one for Foxy Floral in Middle Village for a personal purchase of $165 paid for with school funds, Condon said.

Rizzo admitted to creating the invoices, although she did not remember why she made the invoices for the fictitious companies, Condon said. She also admitted to using funds to buy a Dell notebook, a couch for her daughter, car service and a Frigidare washer and dryer for her daughter, Condon said. These purchases accounted for more than $4,600 in DOE funds.

Condon said this is an example of the principal not supervising how the money of her school is managed.

“In a number of investigations, we found that school administrators failed in that task for a variety of reasons: deliberately, negligently, through incompetence and through inattention. We again recommend that the DOE take whatever steps are necessary to correct the problems associated with school level finances,” he said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Updated 6:01 pm, October 10, 2011
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