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School system sits on major revelations in Heitman suicide case — for two years

By   /   June 24, 2014  /   No Comments

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — For three years Oak Ridge officials seemed to disregard all the public pleas Annette Heitman made begging for any information that might explain why her son Alex reportedly committed suicide in 2011.

As it turns out, Oak Ridge officials had that information in an audit, but they kept it secret for more than two years.

Alex, the Oak Ridge School System’s former director of business services, made thousands of dollars in unauthorized expenses for himself, likely to further his graduate school education, the audit said.

As Tennessee Watchdog previously reported, Alex reported the theft of school money among seven different people. Some of that money was reportedly used to buy methamphetamine.

MYSTERY: The death of Alex Heitman in Tennessee was quickly ruled a suicide.

MYSTERY: The death of Alex Heitman in Tennessee was quickly ruled a suicide.

A few months later Alex was found dead in Cocke County, 70 miles away, and the death was quickly ruled a suicide. Alex’s mother never accepted the official story and documented on a website why she feels that way.

Annette Heitman, Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn and Tennessee Watchdog have run in circles trying to get Oak Ridge officials to discuss the extremely sensitive case.

The audit, made available on a website Heitman built in honor of her son, was submitted in March 2012. The audit only became public after two news organizations in east Tennessee filed open records requests recently.

If officials had this information two years ago why didn’t they, at the very least, release the audit to the Heitmans, even privately, when they first requested answers?

Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers didn’t immediately return Tennessee Watchdog’s two requests for comment Monday.

Why was the audit, done in conjunction with state comptrollers and a private auditing firm, apparently inaccessible to the public for so long ?

Tennessee Watchdog couldn’t find the audit anywhere on the state comptroller’s website. Comptroller spokesman Blake Fontenay told Tennessee Watchdog Monday that state officials never intended the audit to go public.

“It is considered part of our investigative working papers and therefore is exempt from the public records law,” Fontenay said. “That explains why we didn’t post it.”

Ted Katz, spokesman for the Knoxville-based Pugh & Company auditing firm, told Tennessee Watchdog Monday the audit was completed after Heitman’s death. Oak Ridge

“There were unusual circumstances related to his death,” Katz said, adding he interviewed Borchers and other “key finance people” in the school district.

“We came across unusual transactions. Some answers can’t be known. You would have to ask Alex, quite honestly. That’s something we weren’t able to do.”

Among the findings:

  • An unauthorized purchase of one iPad from Apple, Inc. for $778.
  • Unallowable and unapproved charges and expenses from expense claim reimbursements totaling $1,137. These expenditures were for various professional memberships, continuing education, or publications that were not approved.
  • It appears Heitman incurred $6,403 in personal charges on his school credit card and reimbursed the Board $1,985 over the 23-month period examined. The personal charges consisted of unapproved tuition fees for graduate school classes, continuing education, professional memberships, publications, conferences, travel and related expenses.
  • The former supervisor of business services submitted professional leave requests for six days that were approved by his supervisor and resulted in him receiving gross pay of $1,724 for continuing education or conferences that he didn’ attend.

On her website, Annette Heitman said Alex still hadn’t done anything that would drive him to kill himself.

“Not even close. The total amounts in question, if proven to be true, equal less than $10,000,” Heitman said.

When asked about that, Katz wouldn’t say with certainty whether he agreed with Heitman’s assessment.

“It’s not an enormous amount of money, either, and we did a pretty thorough review of transactions, so we’re not talking large amounts here when you really get down to it,” Katz said.

“Whether it was enough money for him to want to kill himself is a subjective thing, but I would say that her statement makes sense, from that perspective.”

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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Chris Butler is the Tennessee bureau reporter for Watchdog.org. Chris has previously worked at newspapers in Florida, Texas and his home state of Louisiana and has awards from the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press as well as the Louisiana Press Association. He earned his bachelor's degree from Louisiana Tech University and his master's degree from the University of Louisiana at Monroe.