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OSBI investigating new allegations of forgery by Epic Charter Schools' co-founder and CFO, willful neglect by board members

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation executed another search warrant Wednesday in its investigation into Epic Charter Schools, and its inquiry now includes new allegations against administrators and governing board members.

Documentation of the new search warrant, filed in Oklahoma County District Court, reveals that agents seized potential evidence of:

• Embezzlement and second-degree forgery by Epic’s co-founder and former superintendent, David Chaney, and Chief Financial Officer Josh Brock

• Unlawful proceeds by Chaney

• Willful neglect and omission to perform duty by public officers by four members of the school’s governing board

Two of the named individuals, Mike Cantrell and Doug Scott, are still listed on the board’s roster; the other two, Travis Burkett and Peter Regan, appear to be former board members.

Court records show that agents went to the home of Kurt Talbott — a coach whose organization provides home-schooled students with basketball, swimming, tennis, and track and field opportunities — and seized bank statements and his computer. The organization, OKC Storm Athletics, contracts with Epic as a vendor to receive public funding.

Each Epic student has access to up to $1,000 annually that, once any curriculum and technology costs are covered, can be paid out for extracurricular or educational activities through something Epic calls the Learning Fund.

The newly revealed allegations concern how Epic has paid out and reported the expenditure of millions of dollars in state-appropriated funds through its Learning Fund for student activities, including dancing lessons, gymnastics, memberships and “various other non-elective functions.”

In his affidavit to the court for obtaining the search warrant, an OSBI agent wrote that Talbott’s records of OKC Storm Athletics’ invoices, personnel and payment records for employees and subcontractors, and bank statements are potential evidence.

The governing board is accused of authorizing payments “without exercising proper oversight.”

According to the court records, Epic’s co-founders, Chaney and Ben Harris, as well as their lobbyist, Bobby Stem, Chief Financial Officer Josh Brock and then-attorney Brad Clark had been warned in May 2012 that the still-new charter school could be violating state law with its initial method of making Learning Fund payments. The issue raised reportedly was the fact that the payments were for “extracurricular activities where the students received no elective credit.”

Clark now serves as general counsel for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, and his wife, Tiffany Clark, is Epic’s contract school governing board clerk.

The warning, which came from an attorney for Epic’s first authorizer, Graham-Dustin Public School District, was that the appropriated funds were restricted to public use and the payments from the learning fund were considered “gifts” to private individuals.

According to the OSBI, in August 2012, Epic devised a new means of making Learning Fund payments by which it transfers lump sums of public dollars to a private, for-profit company called Epic Youth Services, which manages Epic Charter Schools and is owned by Chaney and Harris.

Brock reportedly told the OSBI that first academic year, 2012-13, that those transfers amounted to $1.23 million. And an OSBI agent wrote: “Josh Brock has transferred an equal or greater amount each year from 2013 to the present time.”

The issue, the OSBI agent wrote, is that Brock coded the transfer of funds as “instructional services” in the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System, which all public schools must use to account for their use of public funds. And instructional services “must be a course supported by a teacher of record, a recorded grade and included on the transcript,” the agent wrote.

Chaney and Brock are accused of “knowingly and intentionally” using the Learning Fund to make fraudulent expenditures, concealing the fraudulent expenditures by disguising the payments as instructional services and falsifying corporate records, according to the court documents.

And Chaney is accused of unlawful proceeds by opening a bank account “to acquire and conceal the transfer of State-appropriated funds.”

The OSBI agent wrote that all four governing board members named in the court records “refused to talk with me.”

In late February, the Tulsa World broke the story that the OSBI and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General were investigating Epic.

In mid-July, the OSBI revealed in public court records that its investigators are looking into allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses and racketeering at Epic. And the World obtained other public records that show the Federal Bureau of Investigation has also been probing Epic’s student enrollment practices and finances.

At that time, agents went to the home of an Epic teacher and seized potential evidence in its investigation of whether Epic had wrongly obtained millions of taxpayer dollars by falsely inflating its student enrollment figures.

On Wednesday afternoon, the OSBI declined to comment on the new court filings in the Epic Charter School investigation “due to the fact it is an ongoing investigation.”

Chuck Richardson, an attorney for Epic, issued the following written press statement late Wednesday: “Epic and its founders will continue to cooperate with investigators, who have now been probing the school for more than six years. It is important to note that no charges have ever been filed. We are confident that the end result of this investigation will be as it has always been — no finding of wrongdoing.”

An hour later, a statement directed to Epic employees and parents was posted on the school’s social media accounts, stating that “our school, CFO and current and past board members have done nothing wrong.”

“Many of you have likely read the latest article from the Tulsa World. Please do not let this distract you from your important work in preparing for the upcoming school year. Today’s action by the OSBI is simply the latest in six years of continued allegations that we continue to prove false at every opportunity,” says the statement from new Superintendent Bart Banfield.

The Epic Board of Education released a statement after meeting in executive session for an hour and a half Wednesday night, repeating much of the information released earlier in the day in Richardson’s statement and on social media.

“EPIC will continue to fully cooperate with investigators and we are pleased the governor and state superintendent have asked the state auditor and inspector to independently review EPIC’s previous three annual school audits,” the statement says in part.

“We have full faith in the faculty and staff of EPIC and their commitment to the students and families we serve. We know our faculty and staff are dedicated to making the 2019-2020 the most successful school year to date and we have full confidence they will.”

Tulsa, Union, Broken Arrow students have significant changes on first day of fall classes

A new school year brought big and small changes to three major Tulsa-area districts that returned from summer break Wednesday.

Thousands of students in the Tulsa and Union districts walked into schools with boosted enrollments or new names. Even more found themselves with new principals, including those at the Freshman Academy in Broken Arrow.

Tulsa district: No school seemed quite as ready to embrace change as north Tulsa’s Monroe Demonstration Academy, which nearly quadrupled in size with a projected 950 students this year.

More than 100 community members, teachers, staff and volunteers cheered students on as they arrived for the first official school day at the expanded Monroe, located at 2010 E. 48th St. North.

Some clapped. Others shook hands. Several teachers welcomed middle-schoolers with chants like: “Hey, it’s you! You’re here! That’s great!”

Monroe Principal Rex Langley tried to greet every student.

“Can I count on you? I’ve got to have you, man. I’ve got to have you,” he told one boy as he fist-bumped him.

Langley said he was in awe of the size of the welcoming committee. He expected some community turnout but not to this degree.

That turnout meant a lot to the third-year principal.

The North Tulsa Community Education Task Force, which Tulsa school district leaders formed last year, recommended converting Monroe into a neighborhood school serving all middle-schoolers in the McLain feeder pattern. The school board approved the recommendation in February.

Langley said the school support displayed on Wednesday morning is just the start of the community’s involvement at Monroe this school year.

“It’s important for the scholars to actually see that level of support is not just for day one,” he said. “It’s for all year, because this version of this school is really the vision and the dream of a large collaborative effort. To see that collaborative effort spill into the first day — it’s very powerful.”

Chloe Allen, a north Tulsa pastor and retired teacher, waved a colorful handmade sign that read “Have a great day.”

With so many changes happening at Monroe on top of traditional first-day jitters, Allen said it was especially important for students to arrive to an outpouring of support.

Self-esteem is essential for student learning. If kids see how much their success means to the community, then it will mean that much more to them, she said.

“I think when they see community leaders and they see grandmas and they see moms and dads out here telling them to have a great year and really cheering them on, then that gives them incentive to succeed,” Allen said.

Less than a mile west of Monroe, McLain High School Principal Renee Rabovsky was having the time of her life.

Rabovsky, who took over as interim principal after her predecessor’s resignation in May, joined teachers at the front entrance to receive students before the first bell.

There were no problems to speak of as hallways cleared and classrooms filled up, an accomplishment Rabovsky was glad to see. She remembers more than once during her four years as assistant principal having to deal with long lines of students trying to figure out where to go.

Chatting with teachers and teenagers after months of preparing for this new role helped to solidify that her lifelong mission to lead is now a reality.

“This is like my dream come true,” Rabovsky said. “This is my school, my town. So I’m just excited, to be honest.”

Students at the nearby John Hope Franklin Elementary School have a new principal and a new school identity this year. Kelley Blakney leads the recently named school, which resulted from the consolidation of Gilcrease Elementary and ECDC-Bunche and serves students from prekindergarten through fifth grade.

Superintendent Deborah Gist toured the three schools and 10 others throughout the day, meeting with the many principals and teachers.

Her favorite part of the day, however, was spent talking with students. Gist especially appreciated a girl at Mayo Demonstration Academy who asked her for a hug.

“The most memorable experiences for me are the moments I get to talk to kids,” she said.

Wednesday’s school tour was a significant change of pace from two years ago, when Gist started the year teaching a third-grade class that didn’t yet have a permanent teacher.

The Tulsa district still had 23 teacher vacancies Wednesday, pushing several other administrators into classrooms for a fourth-straight year. Most of the vacancies have been filled by last-minute applicants whose paperwork has not yet been processed.

Still, Gist said the inability to start the year with enough educators demonstrates the persistence of the teacher shortage that has plagued Oklahoma for more than half a decade.

“I think the message that we want Oklahomans to hear is that we still have a teacher shortage in our state,” she said, “We still have a lot of work to do to make sure our teachers are paid a professional, competitive salary and also to make sure that all of the working conditions that children need to be successful and teachers need to both be successful and to want to stay in Oklahoma are in place.”

Union: Wednesday also proved to be a unique first day for everyone at Union’s Ellen Ochoa Elementary School, where enrollment jumped from about 540 students to 970. The boost was made possible due to the recent completion of the second half of the school building, which opened in 2017 to reduce crowding at other elementary schools.

Ochoa Principal Rita Long said the larger school population called for several procedure changes. Administrators focused on communicating the changes over the summer and made personal visits to families of every student in a single evening, she said.

To help students feel more comfortable, the school invited families to walk their children to their classrooms. Teachers and employees stayed front and center to greet families and answer questions.

“I think always you’re wanting things to go smoothly and for it to be a warm and welcoming environment,” Long said. “So we worked really hard to ensure that those things were in place just to make it a great first day for our families.”

Broken Arrow: Meanwhile, Josh Regnier experienced some nerves heading into his first school day as principal of the Broken Arrow Freshman Academy. With more than 1,200 projected students, the academy is about twice as large as East Central Junior High, where he was principal the past seven years.

“When you spend seven years developing procedures at a school and then you come into a new place, you have to learn quick,” Regnier said. “It’s like drinking water out of a fire hydrant.”

But he wasn’t as nervous as he could have been, which he credits to having a great team around him.

Regnier described the first day as fast and furious from the time parents dropped off their children in the morning to when the final student left in the afternoon.

Trying to get 1,200 freshmen through two lunch periods without any mayhem provided an interesting challenge. So did making sure everybody got on the right bus at the end of the day.

“The bus riding, routes and things like that were a bit hectic at times,” he said. “But it’s expected the first day or two while kids get adjusted to the Freshman Academy and how things run here. It’ll get better each day. Not too bad for a first day. I was very happy with it.”

Owasso Public Schools is the only major suburban district that has not yet returned for the fall semester. Owasso’s first day is Thursday.

Tulsa County fails most aspects in challenge of $10.25 million award to estate of man who died in jail

An appellate court has upheld a verdict and denied a new trial sought by Tulsa County officials in a case involving a naked, paralyzed man who died in 2011 at the Tulsa County jail of dehydration and other causes.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, in a 181-page opinion issued Tuesday, turned away most of the arguments posed by county officials and former Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz in their appeal of a verdict and $10.25 million damages award for the estate of Elliott Earl Williams.

“The evidence was sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude that one or more jail detention officer or medical provider was deliberately indifferent to Mr. Williams’s serious medical needs and that Sheriff Glanz maintained a custom or practice of neglecting to remedy deficient medical services at the jail,” the appellate court wrote in its ruling.

Attorneys for Glanz and Tulsa County challenged the verdict and award on several fronts, including whether the evidence for the verdict was insufficient.

The appellate ruling also rejected other claims from county officials and Glanz, including whether a $250,000 punitive damages award against Glanz was excessive.

The appellate court did reverse the trial judge’s ruling that Tulsa County and Glanz were not entitled to see and air evidence post trial regarding how much Williams’ estate received in a settlement from the jail medical services provider, Correctional Healthcare Cos. Inc.

Tulsa County and Glanz contended that the damage awards they were to pay should have been reduced, or offset, by the amount paid by the jail medical provider to the estate in an out-of-court settlement.

“We do not determine whether the Sheriffs are entitled to a setoff,” the opinion states.

Rather, the appellate court reversed Chief U.S. District Judge John Dowdell’s ruling regarding the issue and remanded it back to his court for further consideration.

Williams’ estate, through legal counsel, issued the following statement following the ruling:

“We are very pleased with the Tenth Circuit’s Opinion affirming the verdict. This important case has been hard fought for nearly eight years. The opinion is a tremendous victory for the Estate of Elliott Williams, specifically, and for civil rights advocates, generally.

“Through this comprehensive and well-reasoned Opinion, the Circuit has sent a strong message that even the most powerful governmental officials will be held accountable for knowingly or recklessly maintaining an unconstitutional medical delivery system. The Circuit affirmed on 10 of the 11 asserted issues of error raised by the Sheriffs. The one ruling reversed, on the ‘set-off’ issue, will now be decided again by Judge Dowdell on remand. We are confident that we will ultimately prevail on that issue as well.”

An attorney for the county said the defense was pleased with the ruling on the offset and was considering appeal options on the remaining issues.

“The court reversed Judge Dowdell for an abuse of discretion for not allowing the defense to obtain and present an offset of the medical provider defendant’s pre-trial settlement,” said Guy Fortney, attorney for Tulsa County and Glanz. “We are pleased with the decision reversing the district court’s ruling preventing disclosure of the prior settlement.

“The Court did affirm on the other appeal points and the County must consider other appellate alternatives, which will be fully discussed and decided soon.”

A jury in Tulsa federal court found following a trial in 2017 that Williams’ civil rights were violated by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office and Glanz while he was detained at the jail.

Evidence in the trial showed that Williams begged for water as he spent his last days lying on the floor of a jail cell in his own waste, where he ultimately died after the jail failed to provide him with necessary medical care or transfer to an outside facility, Dowdell said in his ruling.

The jury awarded Williams’ estate $10 million in compensatory damages from Tulsa County and $250,000 in punitive damages from Glanz, who by then was out of office. Payment of the damage awards has been on hold pending the outcome of the appeal.

The 37-year-old Williams was mentally ill when he was jailed on a misdemeanor charge of obstructing a police officer, according to court records.

Williams hit his head while alone in a holding cell, injuring his neck, according to court records.

His health deteriorated over the course of his six days in the jail until jail personnel discovered him unresponsive in a jail medical unit cell about 11:30 a.m. Oct. 27, 2011.

A medical expert for Williams’ estate said jail staff’s failure to stabilize Williams’ neck caused a hematoma that shut down his spinal cord, which in turn cause his respiratory muscles to stop working.

Williams’ death likely could have been avoided had jail staff stabilized his neck and referred him to an appropriate medical facility, according to his estate’s medical expert.

Tulsa County officials maintained that they relied on the medical providers’ judgment in declining to seek treatment for Williams.

At least one nurse for the medical provider said she thought Williams was faking his injuries.

However, a reasonable jury, the appellate opinion stated, “could find both detention officers and medical providers understood that Mr. Williams was experiencing a medical crisis.”

“Despite his obvious needs, they either dismissed Mr. Williams as a malingerer without undertaking any investigation into his condition or abdicated their gatekeeping roles by failing to relay the problem to medical staff,” the ruling states.

Trump moves to end limits on detention of migrant children

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is moving to end an agreement limiting how long migrant children can be kept in detention, the president’s latest effort to curb immigration at the Mexican border.

A court fight is almost certain to follow, challenging the attempt to hold migrant families until asylum cases are decided.

A current settlement overseen by the federal courts now requires the government to keep children in the least restrictive setting and to release them as quickly as possible, generally after 20 days in detention.

Homeland Security officials say they are adopting their own regulations that reflect the “Flores agreement,” which has been in effect since 1997. They say there is no longer a need for the court involvement, which was only meant to be temporary. But the new rules would allow the government to hold families in detention much longer than 20 days.

Tightening immigration is a signature issue for President Donald Trump, aimed at restricting the movement of asylum seekers in the country and deterring more migrants from crossing the border.

The move by the administration immediately generated fresh outrage, following reports of dire conditions in detention facilities, and it is questionable whether courts will let the administration move forward with the policy.

Trump defended it, saying, “I’m the one that kept the families together.”

The Mexican government expressed concern over the prospect of prolonged detention of migrant children in the U.S. In a statement from the Foreign Relations Department, Mexico said it would monitor conditions at U.S. detention centers and continue to offer consular services to any Mexican families that may be held under the new conditions. It also said it would keep an eye on possible court challenges and that “the appropriate legal alternatives will be evaluated.”

In the U.S., immigrant advocates and Democrats decried the new regulations, saying prolonged detention would traumatize immigrant children.

“The administration is seeking to codify child abuse, plain and simple,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.

Peter Schey, a lawyer for the immigrant children in the Flores case and president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said if the regulations don’t match the settlement in that case, “they would be in immediate material breach, if not contempt of court.”

“I think all these things are now part of the 2020 campaign,” Schey said.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said Wednesday that the regulations create higher standards to govern family detention facilities. The facilities will be regularly audited, with the audits made public.

The regulations are expected to be formally published Friday and go into effect in 60 days absent legal challenges.

Holly Cooper, co-director of the immigration law clinic at University of California, Davis and a lawyer in the Flores case, said attorneys haven’t seen the final rule and will have a week to brief a federal judge, who will weigh whether they are consistent with the settlement.

The government’s proposed rule, she said, wouldn’t let lawyers monitor conditions in border facilities and would dramatically change how long children could be detained and the standards for their care.

“We’re going to have a world that looks a lot like the internment of families and children, where we have basically regularized prison as a default for families seeking political asylum in this country,” she told reporters.

The rule follows moves last week to broaden the definition of a “public charge” to include immigrants on public assistance, potentially denying green cards to more immigrants. There was also a recent effort to effectively end asylum altogether at the southern border.

There has been a drastic increase in the number of families crossing the border — about 475,000 so far this budget year, nearly three times the previous full-year record for families. Most are released into the U.S. while their asylum requests wind through the courts — a practice Trump has derided as “catch-and-release.”

The Flores agreement has been in effect since 1997 but mostly was applied to children who came to the country alone. In 2015, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled the requirements were applicable to children who crossed the border with families, after the Obama administration built family detention centers and started detaining families until their cases were completed.

Homeland Security did not say how long it expects families to be kept, but McAleenan said under the previous administration it was about 50 days.

He said, “The intent is for a fair and expeditious proceeding.”

Asylum cases involving detained families move much more quickly than cases for families released, taking months instead of years to resolve, in part because there are none of the delays that result when immigrants fail to show up for hearings.

The government operates three family detention centers that can hold a total of about 3,000 people. One is being used for single adults, and the other two are at capacity.

McAleenan said he didn’t expect to need more bed space because, together with other efforts to restrict the flow of migrants, he expects fewer people to be coming.

Immigrant advocates, in contrast, said they believe the change would put many more immigrants into detained court proceedings, slowing the process and keeping children locked up longer.“This is unnecessarily cruel and frankly evil,” Jess Morales Rocketto, chair of Families Belong Together, told reporters. “The idea that this administration and its agencies can be trusted to do self-regulation and follow the rules is completely ridiculous.”

The massive influx of Central American families to the U.S.-Mexico border has greatly strained the system and foiled Trump’s tough talk on immigration, though agreements by Mexico to clamp down on migrants and a new agreement with Guatemala forcing migrants to claim asylum there instead of heading north are expected to reduce the flow.

Trump administration officials have also forced more than 30,000 people to wait out their asylum cases in Mexico. It’s not clear how this change would affect that policy.

The Flores agreement sets standards of care for children who cross the border alone as well as with families. Lawyers in the case recently spoke out about what they said were deplorable, filthy conditions for children held at border facilities not meant to hold large groups of people for very long.

A report this week by the independent monitor overseeing claims of government noncompliance with Flores rules detailed the extreme overcrowding and poor conditions that immigrant youths faced in detention.

For example, a Border Patrol station in in Clint, Texas, an El Paso suburb, had a stated capacity for 105 children. On June 1, there were 676. Lawyers who visited in June described squalid conditions. Children cared for toddlers, the lawyers said, with inadequate food, water and sanitation.

A federal appeals panel found last week that detained children should get edible food, clean water, soap and toothpaste under the agreement, after a bid to limit what must be provided.