DeKalb schools chief used school card to buy gas multiple times a day

Each time, he used his school district credit card to buy gas, spending $32.83, $32 and $50, records show.

Lewis provided a two-part explanation for the purchases. First, he said he accidentally put premium gasoline in the tank, then, when he realized the error, pumped the gas from the tank and replaced it with regular gas. He attributed his third fill-up to a drive to Monticello to visit his elderly mother.

Lewis explained those purchases — and other clusters of gas purchases — during a November 2008 interview with a District Attorney’s Office investigator, obtained by The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Authorities had called Lewis in to answer questions about purchases on his district credit card and about his purchase of a school district vehicle. Prosecutors say they have closed both cases without filing charges, but the interview provides the first details about credit card purchases that authorities considered questionable.

An AJC review of Lewis’ credit card purchases from January 2007 through May 2009 showed 14 instances in which Lewis made purchases at services stations on the same day, including three times in which he had three such transactions in the same day.

The number could be higher. The data, obtained by the AJC from the state Department of Administrative Services, was missing two months.

The newspaper also found 16 instances in which Lewis had transactions at service stations on back to back days, according to the data. On two other occasions, Lewis made a service station purchase the day before or after making multiple purchases on the same day, data shows.

In 2007, the last year for which the AJC has complete data, Lewis spent more than $3,200 at service stations. Lewis also gets gas for his vehicle from the school district’s service station.

His pattern of making multiple purchases at service stations on the same day — or on back to back days — appeared to come to an end after Lewis interviewed with the DA’s Office on Nov. 26, 2008. The AJC could only find one such instance that came after that date.

Lewis declined a request for comment for this story through the school district’s spokesman, Dale Davis.

During Lewis’ interview with the DA’s Office, investigator Clay Nix focused on several instances in which Lewis purchased gas multiple times on the same day or within a short period of time.

“All I can tell you is when you look at the records, my first thinking is that’s a lot of gas in a row,” Nix told Lewis during a conversation about one of those instances. “And multiple purchases in one day, that’s a lot of driving.”

At one point, Nix asked Lewis whether he was using his card to fill up anyone else’s vehicle.

“Just so we’re clear on this, you’re not putting gas in your wife’s car?” he asked.

“No I’m not,” Lewis said.

“Your son’s car?” Nix asked.

“No...Every single use of the card is for gas that went into the vehicle that I am using for the county,” Lewis said.

Lewis’ contract at the time of the gas purchases allowed him “full-time use of an automobile furnished and maintained by the board.”

Davis said the school system does not have guidelines that specify that the superintendent may use his district credit card to buy gas, but he said that privilege has been given to Lewis and previous superintendents.

“It is the practice and it has always been the practice of former superintendents,” Davis said.

In Lewis’ interview, Nix asked about a string of purchases in early November 2007. On a Thursday, Lewis got fuel from the school district’s service station. He fueled up again on Saturday and Sunday, using his county credit card, according to Nix. Then, on Monday, he fueled up at the county gas station. During that time, county mileage records showed that he traveled 384 miles.

“That just seems like a lot of fuel for 384 miles,” he said. “Can you tell me why you would be fueling up three times in three days?”

Lewis does not address the recorded mileage issue, but explained his frequent gas purchases by saying that he often stopped for gas when his tank got half-empty.

“I generally always had a habit of re-filling my car up when it got halfway,” he said. “Because I do a lot of meetings at night, I don’t like stopping at night.”

Lewis also said he also often made the drive to visit his then-79-year-old mother in his hometown of Monticello, which he said was 140 miles round trip.

“Sometimes I would go after hours, like at six in the evening just to check on her,” he said. “But most of the time, it would be on weekends.”

During the interview, Lewis offered Nix another general explanation for his frequent need for gas: driving to schools all over DeKalb County.

“I travel all over the county. I’m in and out of schools,” he said. “I’m just everywhere.”

When Nix asked Lewis about the three gas purchases on June 22, 2008, he said they looked “very odd.” Lewis first told Nix that he accidentally put premium gas in his tank.

“I grabbed the pump, the pump got halfway through it and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I put the wrong gas in there,’ ” Lewis said.

Once he noticed the error, Lewis said that a man helped him pump the premium gas from the tank, so he could replace it with regular gas.

“He took some hose and helped me to get the gas out of the tank,” Lewis said.

Nix asked Lewis whether he was afraid that premium gas would damage the car.

“I was mortified, quite frankly, that I had done that,” Lewis said.

Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for automotive information site, said Lewis’ mistake would not damage his vehicle.

“That’s absolutely unnecessary,” Edmunds said of removing the gas. “You’re not going to hurt anything except your wallet.”

When Nix asked about the third fuel purchase on that day, Lewis attributed it to a visit with his mother.

Nix also noted the other incidents of Lewis buying gas in bunches, but he did not ask Lewis about each one after confirming that the superintendent would offer some of the same explanations for all of them.

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