RIVIERA BEACH — “He is innocent.” Those are the words of Attorney Michael Salnick, the defense attorney representing Ernest Brown, the embattled band director of Suncoast High School.
“There is a difference in being found not guilty and in being innocent,” Salnick said in response to all charges being dropped against his client. “Ernest Brown is innocent.”
In a stunning move Feb. 6, the state attorney’s office issued a memo clearing Brown of charges of official misconduct and organized scheme to defraud.
The charges had been brought against Brown in connection to a band trip to Europe in which Brown was accused of spending school funds to pay for his family to accompany the band to London and Paris in 2007 and 2008.
The 10-page memo from prosecutor Michael Rachner stated that not only had the statute of limitations run out but that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the case.
“Based upon my extensive review of the files and discussions with investigators and auditors, I believe that the prosecution is barred by the statute of limitations, and further, there is insufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution in this matter,” Rachner wrote in the memo. “The fact indicates, there was no manipulation of official records or documents to cover up his actions.”
It was recommended that the case against Brown be dropped. Salnick said Brown cried upon learning the news.
“This is what Mr. Brown and his wife have been praying for,” he said. “To prove this case, you’ve got to prove criminal intent. It was evident there was no criminal intent. Mr. Brown didn’t take any money and he didn’t steal anything.”
The case against Brown originated with charges of an organized scheme to defraud and official misconduct for allegedly improper use of more than $100,000 from a booster account for school activities for the European field trips in 2007 and 2008.
The indictments sparked months of controversy between school officials and prosecutors, on the one hand, and, on the other, hundreds of Brown supporters who accused public officials of racism and prosecuting for political gain.
Prosecutors presented the case to a grand jury while the State Attorney’s Office was under the leadership of Michael McAuliffe.
“The case was based on gross misinformation and overlooking the fact that Brown had done nothing wrong,” Salnick said. “The reasons for charging Brown seem to be linked with various suppositions and unprovable assertions in the grand jury report,” the memo stated.
According to the memo, Rachel said he began looking into the case when Assistant State Attorney Sam Stern notified him in January that he had serious misgivings about the case.
Upon his review, he found there was not sufficient evidence to sustain the charges.
The case also lasted through two school superintendents in the Palm Beach County School District. One of them, Art Johnson, originally recommended suspending Brown for seven days without pay in 2010 but the school board put that proposal on hold.
Last spring, after Brown was charged, current Superintendent Wayne Gent recommended firing him.
But, in May, the board put that recommendation off indefinitely after the public outcry. Many community leaders spoke out in support of Brown. “The people who supported Mr. Brown were color-blind,” Salnick said.
“We’re elated,” said Tracey Graham, whose daughter, Amaris, is in the band at Suncoast High, 1717 Avenue S. Riviera Beach, under Brown’s direction. “I’m very happy for him.”
While the criminal charges have been dropped, there is no official word on how the school district will proceed on Brown’s case.
School District spokesperson Nat Harrington issued a statement saying a meeting will be held “to discuss how the school district will move forward.”
Daphne Taylor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org