SALEM SCHOOLS Cougras pleads guilty to 17 felony counts
Cougras is a former Campbell finance director and ex-councilman.
By NORMAN LEIGH
VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU
LISBON -- Ted Cougras, the former Salem schools treasurer, faces a possible prison term after pleading guilty to charges of bribery, money laundering and theft in office.
Cougras, 38, of Poland, appeared this morning before Judge C. Ashley Pike of Columbiana County Common Pleas Court and entered pleas to a total of 17 felony counts.
Cougras was never indicted but agreed instead to plead guilty to the crimes as described by County Prosecutor Robert Herron through a bill of information.
Cougras faces a maximum penalty of more than 80 years in prison. As part of a plea deal, however, the prosecutor's office is recommending a maximum of three years behind bars and a $5,000 fine on the condition Cougras cooperates with any probes.
Herron said that between December 2000 and December 2002, Cougras accepted $8,450 in gift certificates from a school-supplies salesman. His acceptance of the certificates constitutes the eight third-degree bribery felonies with which he is charged.
The eight third-degree money-laundering offenses rise from him having passed gift certificates to others or using them himself.
The theft-in-office charge, a fourth-degree felony, stems from Cougras having purchased items with district money and having them delivered to his home.
Judge Pike will set a sentencing. He is not bound by the plea agreement between Cougras and the prosecutor's office. Cougras declined to comment before today's hearing.
When probe began
Cougras' plea resulted from a criminal probe that began Dec. 13, 2002, when prosecutor's office representatives, tipped by school officials, entered the district's administrative offices and seized records.
Cougras resigned from his $72,237-a-year job three days later without comment.
Cougras came to the Salem job after having served as Campbell's finance director since January 1994.
Before that, he was a 2nd Ward Campbell councilman, a post he held from January 1991 to January 1994.
Before his public service, Cougras worked as a real-estate agent and as a business manager.
Cougras, who was hired at Salem when Randy Engle served as superintendent, received a two-year contract that paid $43,688 the first year and $45,217 the second.
When Cougras, a 1989 Youngstown State University graduate, took the treasurer's job, his only experience in that position was as an internship he served with former Youngstown Schools treasurer Ralph Logozzo, who was fired in January 1997.
Cougras is the second former Salem school official in the last year to face criminal charges.
In August, former Salem High School principal Charles McShane pleaded guilty in Columbiana County Common Pleas Court to theft in office.
McShane, 53, was Lisbon schools superintendent at the time of his plea. But the crime stemmed from actions associated with the Salem school district.
McShane's sentence included a six-month sentence in a community corrections facility, six months of house arrest and four years' probation.
The probe into Cougras' activities at Salem has impacted the school district.
Just weeks after his resignation, the district put his assistant, Annette Howard, a 14-year district employee on paid leave.
In early December, after an internal investigation, Superintendent Dr. David Brobeck accused Howard of improper conduct, including aiding Cougras in making improper purchases and then covering them up.
Howard, who was never charged criminally, denied Brobeck's claims.
Board didn't comply
In February, the school board refused to comply with Brobeck's recommendation that Howard be fired. The majority said Brobeck failed to sufficiently support his claims.
She was credited by board member Cindy Rottenborn with helping to bring Cougras' activity to authorities' attention.
Howard returned to work recently, after drawing more than $52,000 in pay and benefits while on suspension.
The criminal probe also is blamed for affecting the school district at the polls.
Brobeck said in November that the long investigation had created a cloud that contributed to voters' rejection of a 7.85-mill school levy.
Brobeck said the probe also was partly to blame for the defeat in November of three incumbent school board members.