Four district whistleblowers return

Four of the six employees Superintendent Arlene Ackerman suspended last month after news got out about a controversial contract returned to work Monday.

Melanie Harris and Bob Westall, from the office of information and technology, Pat Henwood, the district’s manager for capital programs, and school police commander Augustine Pescatore have all returned, a district source told the Daily News.

Two others, Francis Dougherty, who works in Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery’s office, and senior vice president for procurement services John Byers, have not returned from their sentence, the source said.

In fact, the official said that Dougherty’s suspension may be indefinite — punishment for blowing the whistle on the Ackerman’s handling of a $7.5 million emergency contract.

Ackerman placed the staffers on a two-week, paid administrative leave pending an inquiry conducted by an outside firm into “apparent inconsistencies in the distribution of prime contracts to vendors,” and “questionable practices in other areas of business and facilities operations.”

The schools chief reportedly gave the contract to install surveillance cameras in 19 schools to IBS Communication Inc., a city-based black-owned business, after a white-owned suburban contractor began the work.

A district spokeswoman said that she couldn't confirm whether a decision to fire Dougherty has been made because of an ongoing investigation, but confirmed that several employees who were placed on paid administrative leave did return Monday.

She added that the internal investigation would take longer than officials initially suspected.

"The group hired to investigate has discovered [the matter] is more complicated," said the spokeswoman Shana Kemp. "The investigation is taking longer than we thought."

District officials denied any wrongdoing in the contract dealings and said the decision to suspend the staffers was standard practice. Critics say it was retribution for blowing the whistle on murky dealings.

The most vocal of Ackerman detractors, state Rep. Mike McGeehan, of Northeast Philadelphia, said her handling of the emergency contract, and the subsequent suspensions, warranted an investigation.

McGeehan had asked Gov. Tom Corbett, who was Attorney General at the time, to extend protection under the state’s whistle-blower law to the employees. He also requested an investigation by the Auditor General, who declined.