Charter founder’s lawyer: U.S. obsessed with client
PHILADELPHIA – A Philadelphia charter school founder defrauded the city and state of $6.7 million by earning multiple salaries at four schools she ran, and taking millions more in consulting fees, federal prosecutors argued Wednesday after several weeks of trial.
Dorothy June Brown, 76, allegedly paid herself $4 million through her various titles in a two-year span alone, then created and forged documents as federal investigators closed in, authorities said.
“It’s never enough (for her), the money she’s getting,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joan E. Burnes said in closing arguments.
The defense argued Wednesday that prosecutors concocted the scheme to justify their four-year investigation.
“The federal government was obsessed with the compensation that (Brown) received, so they had to make up a scheme,” lawyer William McSwain told jurors.
Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia have pursued about a half-dozen criminal cases involving charter schools, which began operating in Pennsylvania in the late 1990s. Authorities say the fraud deprives the perennially-broke Philadelphia School District and Pennsylvania taxpayers of needed education funds.
Burns said Brown bypassed the required involvement of her board on key financial transactions, making her a “one-woman, unanimous board of trustees.” The 67-count indictment charged Brown and four others with fraud, obstruction, witness tampering and other counts. Two people pleaded guilty before trial, including Brown’s top assistant.
The indictment charged that Brown set up private consulting companies, Cynwyd and AcademicQuest, which defrauded the Agora Cyber and Planet Abacus charter schools that she founded in 2005 and 2007. She is also charged with defrauding her Laboratory Charter School of Communication and Languages, which opened in 1997.
A defense compensation expert had testified that Brown’s pay was not unreasonable at schools with high test scores. Prosecutors challenged that notion.
“This isn’t a case about kids and test scores, it’s a case about contracts,” Burnes said. “These crimes didn’t occur in a classroom.”
Lawyers for the two remaining defendants, charter school executives Courteney L. Knight, of King of Prussia, and Michael A. Slade Jr., of Philadelphia, denied their clients took part in any fraud or conspiracy.
Slade, Brown’s grand-nephew, ran the Laboratory Charter School, which won a prestigious National Blue Ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education during his tenure. Slade’s lawyer noted that virtually all students there met or exceeded state testing standards — in stark contrast to their peers in traditional city schools.
“If there’s a problem here, that’s the problem,” lawyer Andrew J. Bellwoar argued Wednesday. “The teachers are fabulous. Parents are lining up to get into that school.”
Jury deliberations are expected to begin Thursday.