Philly school employee charged with steering $1 million contract to friends and family

     Philadelphia School District headquarters. (NewsWorks, file)

    Philadelphia School District headquarters. (NewsWorks, file)

    A former employee of the Philadelphia School District was indicted by a grand jury Wednesday on charges of steering a nearly $1 million contract to friends and family.

    A Philadelphia grand jury has recommended criminal charges against Priscilla Wright, 50, who until January was the Philadelphia School District’s manager of small business development.

    In 2013, as the city reeled from the closure of 23 public schools, the grand jury alleges Wright used her influence to take advantage of the situation.

    In an elaborate orchestration, she allegedly pushed a $900,000 contract to a mom-and-pop trucking vendor tasked with transporting supplies and furniture from the closed schools to storage facilities.

    In reality, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office said, Wright duped the trucking company into acting as a front for a series of subcontractors who were actually friends and family members acting under business aliases – a clear breach of conflict of interest statutes.

    “Because it was such a large project, if you were somebody in the know over at the school district, you would know that if you look like a qualified bidder, you were probably going to get a piece of the action,” said Douglas Rhoads, the assistant district attorney working on the case.

    Rhoads says Wright’s plan unfurled as the trucking vendor, Murphy Transporting Services, began to figure out it was stuck laboring without realizing the bulk of the profits.

    “You literally have the Murphys working for the school, but only in name alone,” said Rhoads. “It was really Priscilla Wright behind the scenes, cutting her own family into a profit share while the Murphys were the ones doing the grunt work.”

    Sam and Serena Murphy approached the state’s inspector general about the arrangement. The inspector general’s office handed the case to the district attorney’s office.

    “Ultimately you have somebody here just being very opportunistic and capitalizing on a very dire situation for the school district,” said Rhoads. “And that’s a shame.”

    As a district employee, Wright earned $62,169 annually.

    The Philadelphia School District said it couldn’t comment on the ongoing investigation.

    Wright resigned from the district in January, shortly after being called to testify in the case. In her testimony, Wright denied wrongdoing. Based on other evidence, the grand jury recommended perjury charges in addition to conflict of interest.

    No timetable has been set for a trial, and additional charges may be filed against Wright and/or her friends and family.

    The district attorney’s office names Kia Steave and Angel Hackney as “agents” for Wright, as well as “anonymous” partners including Wright’s son John Nelson Brown; Wright’s sister Laverne Rodney; and other family members who shared in the project’s proceeds, including Wright’s sister Veronica Wright; Wright’s daughter Brittany Davis; and Wright’s nephew Gregory Wright.

    “Ms. Wright and her family are a perfect example of why we need to never stop reviewing and overseeing how the public’s money is spent,” said city District Attorney Seth Williams in an official statement, “because once we remove the checks and balances, the fox all too often raids the hen house.”

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