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A Matter of Principal 

An Eastlake school official learns that honesty isn't always the best policy.

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There was no criminal pattern, no discernible trail of corruption that led to Assistant Principal Jeff Silversteen.

His weekdays were spent with the unruliest teens in Eastlake North High School, to whom he preached discipline, obedience, and honesty. Nights meant volunteering to operate the clock at basketball and football games. Weekends were reserved for the baseball diamond -- he was an assistant coach -- or the hotel rooms of whatever team was traveling to an out-of-town tournament. Silversteen would invariably offer to chaperone.

So last March, when newspapers announced that Eastlake Police were probing North High Booster Club bingo events, nobody would have suspected that Silversteen, an occasional volunteer, was stealing.

Police found no evidence to suggest it, either. But they didn't need any. When they interviewed the assistant principal, he quickly confessed to taking money -- an occasional $20 handed to him by the Booster Club president. Silversteen wasn't keeping track, but he agreed with a police estimate that he took a total of $750.

"I don't know if he admitted taking money because of his conscience or because he found out about the investigation and wanted to be up-front," says one person close to Silversteen. "He's an up-front guy."

The up-front guy, however, made one pathetic criminal. Silversteen would not be rewarded for his forthrightness.


A fascination with American government and a hardy appreciation for scholarship inspired Silversteen to become a social studies teacher. He conveyed civics lessons with a political junkie's zeal, his enthusiasm coaxing administrators into funding a trip for his class to Washington, D.C. Twenty years later, the trip is still an annual highlight for North students.

But the promise of more one-on-one interaction with kids summoned him to the assistant principal's job in 1992.

"There were kids from broken homes who were always in his office -- and always in trouble," says John Sankal, assistant athletic director. "He spent time with them. He was honest and open with them. I know he made a big difference in their lives."

Silversteen drove to Eastlake from his home in Lyndhurst to volunteer for bingo games. Some volunteers called numbers and operated the bingo wheel. Others handed out cards. Still others walked table to table, selling pull-tab tickets similar to lottery scratch-offs. Silversteen's participation spanned nine years.

Proceeds were supposed to pay for sports uniforms and equipment. Yet despite an entrance fee and the cash generated from instant bingo tickets, the events made but modest profits, though they typically drew 150 people to the school cafeteria.

When Breda Loncar took over as principal in the fall of 2000, she consulted Donald Moyer, the Booster Club president, over ways to draw more players and revenue. He blamed a no-smoking rule and road repairs for the game's humble performance.

Loncar finally decided to attend herself, where she witnessed the real reason for the beleaguered revenues: Volunteers were stuffing the cash from instant ticket sales into their own pockets. She reported this to Eastlake Police, who installed surveillance cameras. They saw the same pocket-stuffing Loncar had.

Moyer, it turns out, was feeding a Nevada-sized gambling habit. Most of the thousands he stole from the bingo safe went straight to the coffers of Thistledown.

One day last March, with an investigation looming, Moyer left work early, withdrew the remaining $20,000 of an inheritance from his mother, and boarded a plane for a one-way trip to Las Vegas. Moyer called his family only after the money was gambled away. He needed a plane ticket back to Cleveland, where he was arrested at the airport.

"My client clearly had a gambling addiction," says Moyer's attorney, Frank Brancatelli. "He liked to bet on horses. He couldn't stop."

Booster Club Vice President Robert Mandato was taking money, too. Nicholas Chase, a parent of a student, has also been charged with theft. Police expect to charge a North coach soon.

Moyer and Mandato eventually buckled under police questioning and confessed to taking between $20,000 and $40,000 each. The cops won't say how much they believe Chase stole; his case is still pending.

But detectives estimate that over a million dollars disappeared. Even if they can't prove it, they think Moyer and Mandato took far more than what they've confessed to. Their names were mentioned frequently in interviews police conducted with more than 100 people.

Silversteen, on the other hand, was rarely mentioned.

"There were several witnesses that observed suspicious behavior on his part when he was working the game," says Karen Sheppert, an assistant Lake County prosecutor. But there was no video footage of Silversteen, and no one testified to giving him money. In short, there was no case.

"It would have been very weak," says Sheppert.

But not only did Silversteen confess; the former civics teacher threw himself at the mercy of prosecutors. He spoke without an attorney, waived his right to trial, and pleaded guilty to fifth-degree felony theft. He also paid $750 to reimburse the school, a $2,500 fine, and all court costs.

"He was like 'I've sinned, and let me do my penance,'" says his attorney, Edward Heffernan.

Silversteen's cooperation, his record of community involvement, and his clean past did not save him from a jail cell, however. Judge Martin Parks sentenced him to four months.

"It backfired," says Heffernan. "If he hadn't said anything, he would never have been charged. They had no evidence."

First-time offenders who have stolen similar amounts typically get community service, probation, restitution, and a fine, says Heffernan. "I've had clients who've had much more serious offenses that received considerably less time. But they weren't on the front page of The News-Herald, either."

Sheppert denies that media attention affected the case. She does concede the sentence was about sending a message.

"I think the reason for the severe recommendation -- that being prison, on our part -- had everything to do with his position as an assistant principal," says Sheppert.

Judge Parks declined comment, and Silversteen declined to be interviewed.

But many at North aren't nearly as bent on penalizing Silversteen as law enforcement was. "To a lot of us, the sentence seemed pretty harsh," says Sankal.

Parents, teachers, and students sent letters to Parks. Most maintained Silversteen's theft was an aberration.

"His positive contribution to the students and faculty cannot be overlooked or minimized," Loncar wrote. "In his role of coaching, teaching, and acting as administrator, he is beyond reproach . . . I can only attribute his indiscretion to human weakness."

In his own letter, Silversteen begged for a reduction in his sentence, saying that he had fully repented.

"I have learned my lesson, and I have had a great deal of time to realize the stupidity of my actions," Silversteen wrote. "I have been a model inmate while serving my first month. I am a trustee working six hours each day in the jail kitchen. I also have had numerous opportunities to use my professional and educational background to assist others with letters to home and other judges. I have even spoken to a former student to ensure he is coping with his incarceration."

The judge denied the request. Silversteen will wait out his sentence, which expires at the end of January.

He will not return to North, however. To his colleagues at school, that is the most tragic consequence.

"A lot of people love the guy," says Loncar. "A lot of people are sorry he's gone."

More by Thomas Francis

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