MIDDLETOWN, Conn. – The superintendent of Connecticut’s technical high school system is under investigation for millions in questionable spending, including $84,000 for 1,312 teachers and staff to join the Association for Career and Technical Education.
The $84,000 expense meant 236 of the new ACTE members were eligible to vote in the group’s election for officers in December, which featured the superintendent on the ballot for “administrative division vice president,” the Hartford Courant reports.
Nivea Torres, superintendent of the Connecticut Technical High School System, resigned on Monday amid multiple investigations into questionable spending practices during her short time leading the district, WTIC reports.
Torres, 47, landed the $169,000-per-year job in 2014, and has spent more than $4.5 million with The Pita Group public relations firm on a wide variety of things she claims are necessary to promote the state’s technical education system.
Records show some of the money was spent for Pita staff to post to Torres’ personal Twitter and LinkedIn social media accounts to promote the superintendent as “a strategic innovator and change catalyst at the System’s helm,” according to documents obtained by the Courant.
State education commissioner Dianna Wentzell initially placed Torres and an underling, Athanasula Tanasi, on indefinite paid leave March 16 as the Department of Administrative Services and internal auditors in the education department looked into “various areas of concern” with her spending habits.
Wentzell wrote to DAS Commissioner Melody Currey March 15 to request the agency investigate Torres for “potential violations of state or federal laws, regulation or policies relating to the use and monitoring of funds, contracting, procurement and ethics; potential violations of laws, policies or duties relating to non-retaliation and the ability of employees to report compliance concerns; (and) potential neglect or misuse of state funds.”
Shortly after the Courant highlighted the investigation, U.S. Department of Education special agent Mark Deckett also launched an investigation.
“Our Office is ware of a news article linked below concerning an inquiry into Connecticut’s State Superintendent for the CT Technical High School System,” Deckett wrote to Cloria McCree, the Connecticut Department of Education’s internal audit director.
The federal government “annually awards Connecticut approximately $8,000,000 in career technical education funds,” he wrote. “Our office is interested in finding our additional information related to this inquiry … We would appreciate if you or someone from your agency could contact us as soon as possible …”
Connecticut Department of Education spokeswoman Abbe Smith also confirmed the state agency is working with the federal government to provide more information.
“We have reached out to the Office of Inspector General to provide an update on the matter and to answer any questions or provide any documents they request,” Smith said.
The former superintendent’s attorney, Gregg Adler, told the Courant his client was ordered not to communicate with staff or the technical system’s contractors, and “the way this process has played out, it provides absolutely no opportunity for her to defend herself.”
Adler alleged the CTHSS board was aware of Torres’ spending, including the ACTE memberships, and commended her for her work.
“This is not a Nivea Torres thing, just to benefit herself,” Adler said of the memberships. “She was implementing the strategic plan” approved by the CTHSS board.
“These activities with respect to ACTE were known to the board,” he said.
Adler said the board patted Torres on the back Feb. 28 with a commendation that read in part:
The ambitious Strategic Plan that we developed is becoming a reality and the…CTHSS is now known on the national stage as a result of her work to become an active part of ACTE and by presenting at their national meeting.