Tulsa-area lawmakers blasted Epic Charter Schools on Friday for suing a state senator for slander and libel over statements he reportedly made while questioning the school’s student attendance practices.
Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa, called the lawsuit filed Tuesday against Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, an attempt to silence constituents whose concerns legislators are sworn to represent and an attempt to intimidate other lawmakers just before their first deadline to file bills for the upcoming 2020 session.
“The ramifications of that lawsuit are far greater than the lawsuit itself,” Dills said. “It’s not ironic that lawsuit was made public four days before our first bill filing.
“No public entity receiving taxpayer dollars is above the highest degree of scrutiny we could possibly give. That means asking tough questions; that means investigating. No one — no one is above that. That is called good governance.”
In mid-July, Sharp issued the first in a series of news releases questioning how Epic could have received millions of dollars in state funding the previous two years for 3,000 to 4,000 students in middle and high school when the Epic Blended Learning Centers in which they were enrolled could be attended only by students in early education and elementary school grades.
Epic warned Sharp in a “cease and desist” letter in September that he faced “immediate legal action” if he didn’t comply with the school’s demand for a published retraction of his previous statements.
On Tuesday, Epic accused Sharp of libel and slander in a lawsuit filed in Oklahoma County District Court.
In a press release issued Tuesday evening, Epic said its governing board “has been left with no other option than to move forward with legal proceedings to protect the school.”
The comments about the Epic lawsuit by several local lawmakers came at a public forum hosted Friday afternoon by Jenks Public Schools. The Epic defamation suit was the topic of a question submitted by a member of the public in attendance.
Rep. Denise Brewer, D-Tulsa, commented: “It’s dirty; it’s ugly; and we won’t stand for it.”
She added: “It’s reprehensible, and it’s a threat. If any one of us filed legislation, it’s simply a threat of, ‘Look at what is waiting for you, so you’d better watch yourself because you’re going to have a lawsuit waiting for you, and you don’t know how else we are going to make your life miserable.’”
Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa, called on people to send Sharp a supportive email or card “if you agree with the stand he took.”
“It’s our job to ask the tough questions,” Boatman said. “That’s not something as legislators we are going to back down from. We represent you. That’s our job.”
After the public forum, the Tulsa World asked two more lawmakers present to share their thoughts on the subject.
Senator Joe Newhouse, R-Tulsa, called it a “very dangerous precedent.” He said he fully supports Sharp because lawmakers “should be free to ask the hard questions and broadcast what we’ve learned.”
Then he added: “I think this is going to backfire on this particular charter school that initiated this. I think it’s a bad PR move that is going to hurt them more than it helps them.”
Former Jenks Mayor Lonnie Sims, a Republican who now serves in the House of Representatives for a district that encompasses Jenks, Glenpool, west Tulsa and Berryhill, said, “As elected officials, you are in the public eye and subject to that.”
As for Epic, Sims said, “In this case, I think it’s absolutely wrong what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s good politics for them, either, and I’m not sure they’ll get a lot of public support for what they’re doing, but it’s their decision.”
Dills said during the public forum that if Epic were to prevail in the lawsuit, which seeks an undisclosed amount of damages in excess of $75,000, the case would set a precedent for “every issue of government.”
“We might as well go home and let the special interest groups run our government totally,” she said. “There would be no need for us if that were to happen, so that should be concerning for all 4 million citizens of this state.”
Dills, then in her freshman term as a lawmaker, authored one of the only successful pieces of legislation during the 2019 session targeting virtual schools with new financial transparency reporting requirements and prohibitions on employee conflicts of interest.
Her House Bill 1395 resulted in Epic’s co-founder, David Chaney, stepping down from his role as superintendent because of his ownership stake in the for-profit company that manages the public charter school. It also put in place new accounting requirements for all public schools aimed at capturing more detailed spending information from online charter schools.
On Friday, Dills said she is filing several new bills to clamp down on virtual charter schools, including one concerning their use of millions of taxpayer dollars for advertising and marketing.
“We don’t want public dollars being spent on malls and amusement parks,” Dills said.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has an ongoing probe into allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses, racketeering and forgery at Epic.
And as the Tulsa World previously reported, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Education’s law enforcement arm also have been investigating Epic Charter Schools’ student enrollment practices and finances for the past several years.
In response to the law enforcement investigations, Gov. Kevin Stitt requested an investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools and its related entities by the state auditor, which is ongoing.