At trial, ex-Coatesville chief portrayed as both dedicated educator and thief

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

Michaelle Bond

The racist and sexist text messages shocked, angered, and saddened students, parents, and the rest of the Coatesville Area School District. Even worse was the realization that the superintendent and athletic director were the ones exchanging the messages about students and staff on district-issued cellphones.

It’s been more than four years since the discovery of those texts and the resignations of the top school officials, all of which sparked local and national outrage, local protests, and the ousting of school board members in the Chester County school district.

Then came the allegations that made a bad situation worse: The Chester County District Attorney’s Office accused Richard Como, the former superintendent; and Jim Donato, the former athletic director, of stealing funds from the financially struggling school district. The pair had referenced financial mismanagement in their texts.

The trial of the 71-year-old former superintendent began Thursday, with Como painted by prosecutors as a thief and by his attorney as an unfairly targeted, dedicated educator. Como, who was superintendent for eight years, is charged with more than 40 counts of theft and ethics violations. He is accused of diverting funds from summer-school tuition, a donation to the district and student council to pay for high school football rings; interfering in the hiring process to get his son a job; and selling his electrical generator to the district, which prosecutors called a conflict of interest.

Donato pleaded guilty in 2016 to theft and ethics charges. He and Como were arrested in December 2014 after an 18-month investigation.

“This is a case about abuse of public power, public trust, and public funds,” Assistant District Attorney Brian Burack said in his opening statement Thursday. “It’s a case about a superintendent who used his school district to solve his own problems and fulfill his own needs.”

Como’s attorney, Christian Hoey, a Paoli-based lawyer and former county prosecutor, said prosecutors are misconstruing Como’s actions — stressing that the school board made final hiring and buying decisions — and said the witnesses whom prosecutors plan to call “felt intimidated by these prosecutors” to testify against Como.

“You better believe today and for the next seven days in this courtroom, you better believe we’re going to fight for him,” Hoey said. “Pay close attention to how this ‘story’ came together,” he said, using air quotes.

“At the end of this case, you will be left with the impression there was more to the story than was told to me by this eloquent presentation by the district attorney,” Hoey said.

Chester County Court Judge Thomas G. Gavin, who accepted Donato’s plea in 2016, is presiding at the trial, which is expected to last about seven days. Last January, Gavin declared a mistrial after Como’s lawyer became ill during his opening statement.

After the discovery of the officials’ text messages in 2013, the state’s civil rights commission, the state chapter of the NAACP, and the U.S. Department of Justice helped district officials take steps to try to prevent discrimination, including improving training and communication.

But that hasn’t stopped racist incidents. In the beginning of this school year, hundreds of students at Coatesville Area High School walked out of class to protest racist symbols carved on pumpkins that classmates had shown in a social media post.

Donato, the former athletic director, pleaded guilty in June 2016 to theft of $15,000 from the school district and conflict of interest. He was sentenced to a couple of months in prison. Donato took money from ticket sales at sporting events and the money groups paid to rent out the high school gym, track, and stadium.

Distracted Driving

Pennsylvania defines distracted driving as “an activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.” Drivers have to focus on driving, so they can react to the information on the road, such as road conditions, hazards and other drivers. Distracted drivers do not react appropriately and thus put others at risk for severe injury or death. Examples of distractions, besides using cell phones and texting, include drinking, eating, adjusting the radio, adjusting climate controls, adjusting seats, combing hair, putting on make-up, daydreaming, reaching for dropped items, engaging in heavy conversations, and focusing on events outside of the car.

Driving Under the Influence

Driving under the influence typically refers to alcohol use, but drug use can also impair drivers and cause severe car accidents.  In either situation, enjoying cocktails at happy hour, celebrating with drugs or alcohol, drinking too much wine for dinner and unwinding after a long week at work results in too many motorists driving under the influence.  Controlled substances impact each person differently, making it common for someone to misjudge his or her level of impairment.  These poor judgments can lead to severe and sometimes fatal car accidents.

Driver Fatigue

Driving without enough sleep is commonplace for many in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and across the nation. Truck drivers, shift workers, and those with sleep disorders are most vulnerable to causing an accident because they are drowsy or fatigued. Not having enough rest slows down reaction time and impairs the senses. In fact, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) claims that eighteen (18) hours without sleep impairs a driver to the same extent as someone who has a 0.08 blood or breath alcohol concentration after consuming alcohol.

Speeding

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that one-third of all car accidents involve speeding. Drivers who rush, run late, or simply lack patience may choose to speed when they get behind the wheel. Speeding makes it more likely that a driver will lose control of his or her vehicle and makes it more difficult to react to road hazards and other vehicles. Speeding also increases the impact of a car accident and makes it far less likely that a negligent driver may maintain control of his vehicle sufficient to prevent a collision. High speed car accidents make it far more likely that those involved will suffer severe injuries or death.

OBTAIN NECESSARY COURT ORDERS TO PRESERVE EVIDENCE

At HoeyLegal, we know from our litigation experience that tractor-trailer drivers often operate at least one cellular phone which is in use at, during, or immediately prior to a tractor-trailer accident. Additionally, most tractor-trailers are equipped with data recorders which capture, in real-time, important vehicle operation events including speed, hard braking and other evasive maneuvers taken by the operator and the tractor-trailer.  It is imperative that this evidence be obtained before it is destroyed.  At HoeyLegal, our trial attorneys will obtain any necessary court order to preserve this evidence for trial.

IDENTIFY ALL AT-FAULT DEFENDANTS

Oftentimes, there are several defendants responsible for the tractor-trailer accident. In most cases, at least two defendants are responsible for the ownership and operation of the tractor-trailer.  There may be additional defendants responsible for the hiring and retention of the tractor-trailer driver.  At HoeyLegal, our investigators will promptly identify the responsible defendants and immediately request the preservation of all evidence related to the hiring and retention of the driver, inspection of the vehicles and the supervision and drug/alcohol testing of the vehicle operator.

LOCATE, EXAMINE AND INSPECT THE TRACTOR-TRAILER

Our accident investigators include mechanics who will immediately respond to the accident site and the location where the truck has been impounded in order to photograph the truck and conduct necessary mechanical inspections of the vehicle. In the event that a court order is necessary to examine and inspect the trucks, HoeyLegal Attorneys will promptly file the necessary motions to enable the HoeyLegal mechanics and inspectors to conduct a prompt evaluation of the mechanical function of the at-fault tractor-trailer

ACCIDENT RECONSTRUCTION

Our expert accident investigators include former Pennsylvania State Police accident investigators and nationally recognized engineers who will carefully photograph the accident scene and conduct all necessary measurements of skid marks, yaw marks, displacement of debris and thoroughly examine the accident site to preserve all evidence for the time of trial.

INTERVIEW ALL WITNESS

Our investigators will promptly interview and record all witnesses that observed the accident and collect all biographical information from the witnesses so they will available to testify on your behalf at trial.

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