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School fraud convict can't swap fine for more jail time

Harold Estes' request to save himself $500,000 was denied. Records show Estes owns multiple properties valued at almost $1 million.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A man convicted for his role in a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme involving the Wake County school system's transportation department will have to pay restitution, a judge ruled Monday.

Harold Estes, 63, was convicted two years ago in a scheme involving fake orders to a Wilson-based automotive-parts supplier and kickbacks to employees of the school system's transportation department.

He was sentenced to 11 to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay a $500,000 fine.

Estes' attorney on Monday, however, asked that 30 days be added to his client's sentence in lieu of the fine.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens denied the motion but moved the fine over to civil court. That means Estes can petition the court again toward the end of his sentence.

The court could also put a lien on Estes' properties if he does not pay the fine.

According to tax records, Estes owns at least $900,000 worth of property, including 10 parcels of land totaling $340,571 in Johnston County. Wake County tax records show a service station on N.C. Highway 42 valued at $444,558 and a home on Renfrow Road, worth $131,317.

Six other people – four former school system employees and two former employees of Barnes Motors & Parts, including Estes' wife, Connie Capps – pleaded guilty in 2005 for their roles in the scheme and received sentences ranging from 60 days to up to 10 years.

The Wake County Public School System's former transportation department director, Vern Hatley, was sentenced to 7 to 10 years in February 2006.

Another key player in the scheme, transportation budget analyst Carol Finch, was sentenced to six to eight years.

The school system lost at least $4 million and has recovered an estimated $5 million. It might never be known, however, how much money was stolen.