An assistant superintendent at Dallas County Schools asked a vendor last year to make large donations to a Dallas charity group which, at the time, was led by DCS superintendent Rick Sorrells, NBC 5 Investigates has learned.
In an email sent in April 2016, Assistant Superintendent Susan Falvo asked Rudy Trebels –CEO of a Chicago-area company that did business with DCS – to contribute a total of $50,000 to the charity, White Rock Lake Foundation.
In her government email, Falvo told Trebels the money could go towards a “title sponsorship” for three charity events, and it would “really be impressive” to Dr. Sorrells.
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“He was just elected as president of the White Rock Lake Foundation … so this would be a real feather in his cap!” Falvo said in the email, which was provided to NBC 5 Investigates by a source.
A month later, Trebels sent Sorrells a letter saying his business was “pleased” and “proud” to pledge sponsorship money to the White Rock Lake Foundation -- $25,000 for a “gala,” $15,000 for a “brunch benefit” and $10,000 for a charity golf tournament.
The FBI is investigating the failed business practices of DCS, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and its relationship with another vendor, Force Multiplier Solutions, which equipped school buses with surveillance cameras.
Both Sorrells and Falvo have since left DCS, which is now in the process of being dissolved after voters in early November chose to do away with the agency in light of its financial troubles.
Trebels family owns Equipment Leasing Group of America, which leased millions of dollars in equipment to DCS to operate the school bus camera program.
And another Trebels owned company, Wedgwood Investment Group LLC, purchased taxpayer-owned bus lots from DCS, giving the cash-strapped agency $25 million, then leased the lots back to DCS.
The cost for taxpayers to lease back the bus lots was estimated at $47 million over the next 20 years.
Trebels declined to come out of his office when NBC 5 Investigates went to Chicago, in hopes of asking him about Falvo’s solicitation and his company’s subsequent contributions to White Rock Lake Foundation. Trebels also did not respond to questions NBC 5 Investigates sent him.
A source with knowledge of the transactions questioned why Trebels’ company, Wedgwood, would be interested in giving to a charity that works to maintain a lake in Dallas that is a thousand miles away.
Asked about the part in the email that says Sorrells would be impressed by the $50,000 in contributions, the source told NBC 5 Investigates, “Somebody’s buying somebody?”
“There’s only one way to take that, and that’s that they are asking you to do something to get something,” the source said.
The source asked not to be identified for this report because of employment concerns.
Falvo and her attorney declined to answer questions about the emails.
“I have signed a non-disclosure with DCS and am not allowed to speak to anyone about Dallas County Schools,” Falvo said in an email to NBC 5 Investigates.
Falvo's job was eliminated earlier this year as a result of the district's financial troubles.
In February, NBC 5 Investigates reported that Falvo used her DCS credit card to donate $900 of taxpayer money to the White Rock Lake Foundation.
DCS also wrote checks to the foundation, giving a total of more than $4,600 of your money to the charity led by Sorrells, with Falvo its treasurer.
In February, Sorrells claimed no knowledge of the donations, even though records show he signed off on Falvo's DCS expense reports.
When asked then about whether that was an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, Sorrells told NBC 5 Investigates, “I’d have to visit with Susan on that. Thank you…”
Sorrells later defended the donations, saying they were legal and were made to develop relationships with communities DCS served.
Neither Sorrells nor his attorney responded to questions for this report.
NBC 5 consultant Don Southerland - a former FBI agent and school auditor - says vendor donations to the superintendent's charity raise concerns about ethics at DCS.
“It would certainly get my attention and warrant further investigation,” Southerland said.
Wedgewood was not the only DCS vendor to contribute to Sorrells’ charity.
The golf tournament sponsorship banner also lists Force Multiplier Solutions -- the bus camera company DCS partnered with on a business venture that lost millions of tax dollars - triggering the FBI investigation.
In June, agents served search warrants at the New Orleans home of Robert Leonard, the chief executive officer for Force Multiplier. An FBI search warrant was also served at Leonard’s offices in downtown Dallas.
He has denied any wrongdoing.
Earlier this year, Leonard told NBC 5 Investigates he "contacted Rudy Trebels" and "referred Rudy Trebels and Wedgewood" to DCS as a buyer for four of the agency’s bus lots.
DCS sold the lots to Wedgewood and then leased them back in a deal that gave the troubled agency $25 million in quick cash. But it put taxpayers on the hook for $47 million in lease payments over 20 years -- on land once owned free and clear.
The other company run by the Trebels family -- Equipment Leasing Group of America, or ELGA -- helped DCS acquire camera equipment from Force Multiplier through leasing deals.
They were deals Trebels did not want to discuss when NBC 5 Investigates visited his office in suburban Chicago, and were met by an independent contractor who went to find the businessman.
Upon his return, the worker said: “Rudy said he’s not available now and he doesn’t want to make any comment.”