School Board Member Lori Cunningham Faces Ethics Violation Hearing

Allege Conflict of Interest in Selling Uniforms to Schools She Governs

 

Last updated 2/14/2024 at 12:35pm

Courtesy Polk County Schools

Long-time school board member Lori Cunningham also operated Applied Images, a local printing company that has been selling shirts and other material to several area schools. The Florida Ethics Commission has ruled that the sales constitute a conflict of interest and have cited her for an ethics violation.

The Florida Commission on Ethics had found "probable cause that Polk County School Board member and Lake Wales resident Lori Cunningham has created a conflict of interest for her sales of clothing to the Lake Wales Charter Schools and a Dundee school.

According to the complaint, Cunningham's personally-owned company, Applied Images, has been selling school uniform shirts to at least four local schools for years, specifying "over $16,000 in sales made to charter schools since 2018."

The Commission order cites what it describes as "a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between her private interests and the performance of her public duties," stating "respondent is alleged to have violated Section 112.313(3), Florida Statutes, by doing business with her agency."

The investigative report included statements made by Lake Wales Charter School officials which were then proven incorrect. Former Bok Academy South Principal Damian Rosado told investigators that his school did not purchase shirts from Applied Images, but investigators identified receipts for $1,066.76 identified as "Polo shirts for Bok S."

Other officials, including top leadership at the seven-school charter system, also denied that direct sales were occuring.

Investigators determined that additional shirts and printed materials were being sold directly to Lake Wales High School and Bok Academy North, contrary to statements made by school representatives. Sales were also made to the Dundee Elementary Academy Magnet School, which is governed directly by the Polk School Board.

According to investigators, sales were made "on campus" to students at the schools, and Cunningham's company was listed as a "preferred vendor."

A commission investigation led to the January 30 citation, which allows Cunningham ten days to file for a hearing to appeal the ruling. She is being represented by Lake Wales Attorney Robin Gibson, who also serves as counsel to the Charter School board.

According to the Ethics Commission documents, Gibson had "provided an opinion to her in 2012 regarding the sales of the school shirts that are a part of LWCS. Respondent (Cunningham) was specifically advised that the LWCS 'schools should not use school money to purchase anything from a company in which a school board member has an interest.'"

Gibson issued a statement saying that the "Order does not find that Lori violated the ethics statute."

calling it only an opinion that "there is a probable cause of a violation and the question should go elsewhere for a decision. That (final) decision occurs at a public hearing before a judge from Florida’s Department of Administrative Hearings. We will be going forward to that public hearing and the opportunity to straighten out the matter."

The investigation was initiated at the complaint of former school board member Billy Townsend, who has made the investigation of public officials and relationships a person initiative. The first report of the investigation was released on July 18, 2023, with a "Supplemental Report of Investigation" released on November 28, leading to the finding by the commission.

 

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