Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Missing Treasure

Click Here to read the sidebar “How a treasure hunt became a sinking ship.”

Leah Bodenstein graduated from FAU this past spring. Leo Hernandez dropped out in 2004. Alyssa Baer just started this summer.

They’ve never met. But they’re all mad.

All three wrote their names and e-mail addresses on a form that posed 10 questions about the inner workings of Student Government. They answered each question correctly, which won them a $50 Barnes & Noble gift card. SG records show they picked up their gift cards during the spring semester.

Except it never happened. None of it.

Bodenstein, Hernandez and Baer insist they never filled out any such form. They didn’t answer any questions. And they certainly never received a $50 gift card.

For Hernandez and Baer, it was simply impossible – they weren’t even enrolled at FAU last spring.

“I think it’s crazy,” says Baer, who was a senior at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last spring. “I don’t know how anybody can do that.”

The two SG leaders who ran the “book voucher program” say they don’t know how, either. But some of their peers have a theory, and they’ve already given statements to FAU police.

Detective Michael Aguado has been assigned to the case, and while he won’t comment on an open investigation, police sources told the UP back in July that there is an investigation involving student body president Kirk Murray – who admits he was in charge of signing up students and doling out 200 gift cards on the Boca campus.

The police investigation has lagged. Two former SG officials say they spoke to detectives, but FAU police are tight-lipped about what progress, if any, they’ve made. Yet a UP investigation this month reveals several disturbing aspects to the $15,000 program:

1. At least 50 students say they never filled out an SG form, and they never received a $50 gift card – despite SG saying they did. That means someone else may have possession of at least $2,500 in gift cards.

2. Because SG’s record-keeping is so shoddy – something that even FAU officials have conceded – there’s no telling who has those gift cards.

3. While 15 gift cards were allotted to the Treasure Coast campus, 25 to the Jupiter campus and 60 to the Broward campuses, only a handful of those gift cards are unaccounted for. Boca is the only campus where there are claims of identity theft.

“I feel violated,” says Bodenstein, who the UP reached in Atlanta. “But there’s nothing I can do, I’ve graduated.”

One person who had a lot to do with the program is Murray, who was student body vice president in the spring. It was Murray’s job to distribute the gift cards on the Boca campus. “For Boca, I was overseeing it along with my assistant Kim Nguyen,” Murray told the UP.

His opinion of how it went? “Pretty much I guess I think it’s a really great program.”

When the UP told Murray that students said they never signed up for the gift cards, his only response was, “I’m not aware of that.”

His former assistant, Boca Gov. Kim Nguyen, had a very different reaction. When shown some of the bogus forms that the UP acquired from a public records request, she exclaimed, “I’m just speechless. I am just stunned. I don’t really know what to say about this.”

But two former SG officials have had a lot to say.

Former Boca senator Dan Alexander is sure that “absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt” the police investigation is about Murray’s involvement with the gift-card program. Alexander, who says he gave a statement to FAU police on July 31, says he knows two other students who were initially involved with a plan to take the gift cards and use them to buy books at the Boca campus bookstore, then return them for cash (see chart).

One of those friends refused to go through with it, Alexander says. The other did. Alexander won’t name the latter, but he did name the former: fellow ex-Boca senator Winston Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who says he also spoke with police, told the UP that Murray used the gift cards to buy $300 to $400 worth of books, returning them one day later.

“I know it happened for a fact,” Rodriguez says. “Mr. Murray told me himself.”

He says Murray asked him to come along, but “I did decline to participate.”

The manager of FAU’s bookstore, Phil Silverman, told the UP that an investigation involving his bookstore is indeed underway. He declined to give details because the investigation is ongoing.

Murray told the UP in July that those allegations were false and that the two former Boca senators were running a “smear campaign” timed to damage his chances for winning this summer’s election for student body president. He said that police had contacted him for his “help,” but that police didn’t give him any details.

When the UP questioned Murray in his office two weeks ago, he declined to speak about how the bogus forms might play into the allegations of gift-card fraud.

“I got a lawyer who actually sent a letter to Detective [Michael] Aguado that he’s officially representing me, and if they need any further assistance, instead of coming to me, they would go through the lawyer.”

When pressed, Murray said again, “I was told by the lawyer that for any future questions pertaining to that, go through him, because I’ve met with him, and I pretty much told him what the program was and the channels of distribution. I could provide you with his contact information, and you could go through him.”

Murray did not provide his lawyer’s name or contact information in the intervening two weeks.

While Murray says his lawyer won’t let him speculate about who filled out the bogus forms, many of the students whose names appeared on them had plenty to say. Their reactions ranged from confusion to anger:

1. Elise Berg, political science junior: “I don’t even understand how my name would get on the list in the first place. This is first I’m hearing about it. I’m confused by it.”

2. Carlos Gonzalez, biological sciences sophomore: “I didn’t even know about it. I don’t think it’s right. [I feel] somewhat used and in a sense violated.”

3. Dani Axelrod, marketing sophomore: “I think it’s terrible. It’s just wrong. There should be some kind of consequences.”

When the UP showed computer science freshman Lyle Gallin the form that he supposedly filled out, he said, “This is definitely not my handwriting.” And as he looked at the forms from other students, he added, “You can tell it’s all the same handwriting. How stupid can you be?”

Maybe not that stupid. While students like marketing major Abbigail Bennett wondered, “I have no idea how someone could have gotten my e-mail, much less my name,” other students had their own theories.

“They probably got all of this information from my Facebook profile,” speculates Emmanuel Avril, a sophomore in health administration. “That’s fraud right there.”

It seems possible. Many of the students whose names and information were forged have profiles on the popular college social networking community similar to MySpace.com – including those like Leo Hernandez and Alyssa Baer, the former student and new student who weren’t on campus last spring. But they did have Facebook pages that mentioned FAU. Someone could have searched for FAU students and found them.

“I don’t really use Facebook,” Bennett says, but the UP pointed out that her personal e-mail address was listed on there. She expressed surprise and said, “that Internet is a dangerous thing.”

Another person who was surprised was SG’s own adviser, Associate Student Affairs Dean Lisa Bardill. When the UP showed her the bogus forms, she said, “I am concerned,” and that Student Affairs will have to “investigate the situation.”

And while she seemed surprised when shown the forms, she wasn’t surprised about the program’s shoddy record-keeping. Bardill says she has already told SG officials that she won’t let them buy anymore gift cards until they write strict guidelines – including verifying students’ identities by checking their IDs.

At this point, Bardill says she will have to discuss the UP’s findings with Student Affairs Dean Leslie Bates. She expects “more changes will have to be made.”

But Murray told the UP he did indeed check student IDs when he gave out gift cards – although he had no explanation why so many students are now saying they never signed up for them and never got them.

Murray said that perhaps other SG officials were responsible. He said “various members” also handed out the cards, although he was “not sure” who they were. Murray thought former Chief of Staff Stacey Chait was one, but Chait said she had nothing to do with it – and suggested that another cabinet member, Emily Charlemont, may have. But Charlemont said she didn’t and suggested that last year’s Boca Gov. Diana DeJesus did, but DeJesus couldn’t be reached for comment.

On FAU’s northern and southern campuses, SG officials handed out 100 gift cards and told the UP that only a handful were unaccounted for. They also said there were no claims of identity theft. However, former Treasure Coast Gov. Kelly Gladwish said that her campus did not keep track of the names of students who won gift cards until she received a phone call from Murray asking her for a list. She had to come up with a list from her memory and admitted one of the students on the list may be wrong.

No one may ever find out what happened to the missing gift cards, but FAU officials want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Inspector General Morley Barnett, who audits FAU’s books, says he reviewed the program last spring after receiving an anonymous tip. He reported his findings last April. Barnett says the biggest problem is the lack of written procedures. “We like to see formality,” he says. “That’s the kind of world we live in.”

Among his suggestions for cleaning up the program:

1. Requiring students to sign for their gift cards.

2. Verifying students’ enrollment.

3. Requiring two authorized SG officials to sign off on the cards before they’re given out.

Murray didn’t dispute the Inspector General’s findings. “I guess what we do is learn from our mistakes,” he said. But Murray’s vice president was not so circumspect.

“I am disappointed. That’s cheating and deception,” Student Body Vice President Austin Shaw said. “Those in charge handled it poorly.”

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