Florida Politics | By Jason Delgado | January 27, 2022
MacBooks, iPads, gift cards and more
A Florida Department of Education (DOE) employee walked off the job in August after an internal investigation revealed he misused his position and purchased more than $90,000 worth of items for “personal benefit.”
According to a report completed in December by DOE Inspector General Mike Blackburn, the employee — former program specialist Justin Feller — spent grant funds intended to support a statewide computer science training program to enrich himself and others.
Feller was a member of the Department’s Innovation & Implementation (I&I) Team, a four-person team that provides tech training to students and helps educators prepare for computer science certifications.
Using grant dollars that went unspent while the team was hosting remote trainings amid the pandemic, Feller bought items such as MacBooks, iPads, a laser engraver, Visa gift cards, a DSLR camera, and an Apple Pencil, among other things. The online training programs cost the team significantly less than the in-person training courses, resulting in a surplus of funds.
Feller distributed the items with fellow team members including former I&I Director Katrina Figgett, Instructional Technology Specialist Kenneth Edwards and Grant Specialist Daniel Ring. The trio, the report says, stored much of the equipment in their homes, where they were working at the time.
At one point, Feller requested a $5,500 advance for future work from the North East Florida Educational Consortium (NEFEC) — a nonprofit that helps fund training for districts that otherwise could not afford it.
Figgett OK’d the request, though she did not read it and operated under the impression it was for completed work, per the report. Feller later reimbursed the nonprofit.
“Based on the findings, the OIG (Office of Inspector General) substantiated that employees improperly used their positions to solicit and obtain payments and equipment for their personal benefit,” DOE Communications Director Jared Ochs told Florida Politics in an email.
Feller’s shopping spree lasted months.
The purchases, the report says, frequently happened in sets of four — one item per team member.
He also bought two $250 gift cards for himself and each team member, plus five $100 gift cards for himself alone.
Feller was the only team member who ordered equipment or purchased gift cards using grant funds, per the report.
Feller refused to cooperate with investigators and resigned amid the investigation. He now works at Broward County Schools, which DOE notified about the incident.
“As a result of this investigation’s conclusion and recommendation, appropriate steps were taken immediately and these employees are no longer employed by FDOE,” Ochs said. “Furthermore, FDOE has referred this case to the Commission on Ethics for further review and action.”
Though Feller’s purchases flew under the radar of department leadership, at least one team member grew wary over time.
Ring — who says he previously raised concerns with Figgett — reported the situation to Standards and Instructional Support Bureau Chief Dr. Kathy Nobles after he noticed purchases outside of computer equipment.
In particular, he took issue with the purchase of a flag and set of stickers featuring the phrase ‘Dog Good. Cat Good.” The phrase, Ring explained, was an inside joke among members of the team.
“I had to turn them in,” Ring told Florida Politics. “They were my friends. I felt bad about it. But there’s nothing else I could do.”
The report set off a bizarre sequence of events, much of which is not featured in the Inspector General report.
The first event occurred on July 16, 2021 as Ring was asleep in his apartment around 9:25 p.m. He was awoken by “banging” on his apartment door. The person, who never identified themself, then tried to open his son’s bedroom window.
Ring, armed with a weapon, approached the door before crawling over to the window where he saw his co-worker, Edwards, going around the corner outside.
After Edwards left, Ring found a note on his door.
“Dan call me ASAP — Ken Friday nine thirty PM,” it read, with another note from Edwards’ wife in the corner, “If you don’t want to call just text us to let us know your (sic) okay.”
Ring did not call or text Edwards. He instead called Nobles.
“When Kathy answers, I was surprised to find out she knew Kenneth was coming over,” Ring wrote in the email after the incident to Labor Relations Director Deborah Strickland.
In the email, he explained that Edwards would not have been able to call him because he blocked his number after “Kathy Nobles told me not to talk to anyone about the whistleblower report.”
Ring said his last communication with Edwards was a joint text with Edwards’ wife. Ring said he forgot to block his wife.
“In essence, they told me to shut my mouth and stop pouting about the whistleblower thing,” he wrote in the email.
Ring returned to work on July 26, though his time on the job was short-lived.
According to a Tallahassee Police Department incident report, a DOE employee called the police and asked they remove Ring from the Turlington Building shortly after he arrived.
In the report, police say the caller noted that Ring pulled a gun on another “employee… who went to do a wellness check.” the week prior.
Police escorted Ring outside without incident.
DOE declined to comment on Ring’s version of events, though they did highlight that none of the I&I team remains employed at the department,
Nobles — the bureau chief who joined the department in 2015 — retired roughly two months earlier than she originally planned. She now works as an adjunct professor at Valdosta State University.
DOE terminated Ring for a series of allegations related to the incident, including the signing of a non-disclosure agreement with LEGO on behalf of DOE.
The NDA was part of an agreement to allow Ring and other members of a DOE-staffed podcast to preview new merchandise as part of the show. The NDA was not approved by department leadership, per the report.
Feller, Figgett, and Edwards also signed the document.