Trial planned in Atlanta school kickback case

When Jerome Oberlton goes on trial for allegedly taking bribes for a contract he oversaw at Atlanta Public Schools, his own words and those of his Kennesaw neighbor will likely work against him.

Oberlton admits receiving kickbacks in a work email he sent to his personal Yahoo email account. In addition, his alleged co-conspirator and neighbor, Mahendra Patel, could be called to testify against him as a result of a plea deal.

A federal magistrate judge ruled Oct. 2 that Oberlton’s case was ready for trial. A court date hasn’t been set.

The charges arise from a contract Oberlton managed when he was chief information officer for Atlanta Public Schools, a position he held from 2004 to 2007. Federal prosecutors claim Oberlton used his influence at the school system to award a $780,000 computer project and score a profit from the deal.

Aiding the prosecution’s case is a “recollection” Oberlton emailed to himself, written the day he resigned as chief of staff for the Dallas Independent School District. The email was included as an exhibit in an internal Dallas school district investigation of Oberlton’s work, ordered after he revealed he was about to be indicted. The investigative report was obtained by The Dallas Morning News.

“I received in total about $50,000 in total kickbacks from the work Computech did with APS,” Oberlton wrote in the May 27 email. “While I wanted to partner with Computech, I felt the only way to do this so that it was legitimate and above board was to leave APS.”

His email said he continued to work with Computech after quitting the Atlanta schools job.

Oberlton couldn’t be reached for comment because his personal phone has been disconnected. His attorneys with the Atlanta public defender program, Nicole Kaplan and Jeffrey Ertel, had no comment, Ertel said.

Prosecutors allege the scheme unfolded in January 2007, when Atlanta Public Schools issued a request for proposals for companies to run a project that would centralize digital information in a secure and easily accessible way.

The contract was awarded to a Detroit-based technology company, according to a news release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, which didn’t name the company. Phone messages left with Detroit-based Computech Corporation weren’t returned.

Prosecutors said Oberlton funneled bribe payments through two shell companies and concealed his ownership of the companies. They said Patel acted as an intermediary by negotiating the kickbacks.

Patel pleaded guilty Aug. 16, and he faces a sentencing range between 27 months and 34 months in prison, said his attorney, David West. Patel could be called to testify against against Oberlton.

“Now that my client has entered a plea, his right under the Fifth Amendment to refrain from testifying is removed,” West said. “If he is subpoenaed and required to testify, I expect he would testify completely and truthfully.”

Patel received about $15,000 from the deal with Computech, West said.

The indictment doesn’t reveal the names of the people who allegedly paid bribes, referring to them as co-conspirators A and B. It also doesn’t identify Computech by name, instead calling the business involved Company A.

“The best question in this case, right now as it stands, is why isn’t somebody doing something about Computech?” asked West.

Prosecutors declined to comment beyond what they wrote in a statement when Patel pleaded guilty.

“In a time when educational resources are scarce or often non-existent, his fraud helped steer a lucrative computer contract to the highest bidder — one that was willing to line his pockets in exchange for work,” said U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates.

If convicted, Oberlton faces a maximum sentence up to 105 years in prison.