Probe eyes Kenilworth's vendor business

Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Federal investigators raided Kenilworth Science & Technology Charter School in Baton Rouge last month and are probing the school’s dealings with several businesses. Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Federal investigators raided Kenilworth Science & Technology Charter School in Baton Rouge last month and are probing the school’s dealings with several businesses.

School’s business dealings scrutinized

As a cloud of uncertainty has settled over Kenilworth, school officials have sought to underline progress the school has made since Pelican took over, including steady improvements in performance scores. The state increased Kenilworth’s letter grade from an F to a C after the 2012-13 school year, clearing the way for the school to seek a five-year renewal of its charter, which was granted Dec. 5.

Federal investigators who raided Kenilworth Science & Technology Charter School in Baton Rouge last month are scrutinizing the school’s dealings with several businesses, including vendors who have provided services such as busing and cleaning.

The authorities targeted financial records relating to nine companies, most of which are owned by individuals of Turkish descent, according to a search warrant, and confiscated reams of other documents before copying the hard drives of computers in the school’s business office.

While many questions remain unanswered, the warrant offers the most detailed glimpse to date of what the FBI was seeking Dec. 11 when agents dropped in on the school unannounced.

The sweeping warrant authorized agents to seize personnel files of past and current employees, tax returns, phone records, invoices and board meeting minutes, underscoring the wide net the federal government has cast in its probe of the school.

Andrew R. Lee, an attorney who represents Pelican Educational Foundation, Kenilworth’s nonprofit operator, said the school’s finances are accounted for and aboveboard, pointing to a recent audit that yielded a clean fiscal bill of health. He said school administrators have cooperated with the investigation at every turn and will continue to do so.

“We are being transparent,” Lee said during a lengthy interview in New Orleans last week. “We have nothing to hide.”

The companies singled out in the warrant represent a fraction of the hundreds of vendors Pelican has done business with in recent years, and it’s not clear why they attracted federal attention. The owners of the businesses are either American citizens or legal residents, Lee said, adding there is no law that prohibits charter schools from doing business with a company based on the owner’s ethnicity.

Lee said “one of the elephants in the room” is the focus federal authorities have placed on businesses owned by people of Turkish descent. He said groups with a shared affinity tend to want to do business together.

“It’s not criminal to associate with Turkish groups,” Lee said. “They do business with just about anybody that gives them the best price.”

The FBI did not respond to a request for comment. Law enforcement officials have been tight-lipped about last month’s raid at Kenilworth, and related documents remain under seal in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge.

No charges have been filed in the case.

School leaders were taken aback last month when, days after the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education renewed the school’s charter, investigators descended on the campus and began carting away boxes of documents.

The high-profile search stood in sharp contrast to a subpoena the U.S. Attorney’s Office quietly issued to a Pelican auditor in 2011 — seeking information about a board member and a former member of management — and could reflect an escalation in an investigation several years in the making.

“It’s created a stain on the reputation that I believe is unwarranted,” Lee said of the search, stressing it’s possible that prosecutors will find no grounds for charges. “Nobody was shredding files. You could have subpoenaed us and nobody would have known that there was this going on.”

Walt Green, acting U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge, declined to comment on Saturday, citing the ongoing investigation.

The most recognizable Pelican affiliate listed in the search warrant is the Cosmos Foundation, a large, established charter school operator in Texas that has provided a number of support services for Kenilworth. Cosmos, which operates under the name Harmony Public Schools, has provided excellent service for “extremely reasonable fees” that the company has even waived at times, Lee said.

Julie Norton, Harmony’s communications director, said, “We are not aware of having been named in any warrant but would pledge full cooperation in any investigation.”

BESE counted Pelican’s relationship with Cosmos among the principal reasons it accepted the nonprofit’s application to open a charter school in Louisiana. But Cosmos also has found itself at the center of skepticism surrounding the formation of Turkish charter schools in the United States.

In 2011, The New York Times reported that Cosmos had nurtured a “close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants,” including a “growing assemblage of smaller vendors selling school lunches, uniforms, after-school programs, Web design, teacher training and even special education assessments.”

The Times raised questions about whether Cosmos has used public dollars to benefit the global Hizmet movement inspired by the Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, either by directing business to his followers or through “arrangements with local foundations that promote Gülen teachings and Turkish culture.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the same year that federal agencies were looking into whether charter school employees working under H1-B visas were “kicking back” part of their salaries to the movement.

Lee said it would be inaccurate to characterize Kenilworth as a Gülen school but said administrators “don’t run from him.” Gülen has “absolutely nothing to do with curriculum,” Lee said.

“The whole connection to Gülen story is something that really doesn’t enter their minds when they’re doing their day-to-day business of running the school,” he said of school leaders. “They do happen to know who Gülen is and read what he has written over the years and, in some instances, possibly got into the education business because they were inspired by his message, which is to expand quality education.”

The search warrant also sought records of any dealings between Pelican and the Houston-based Atlas Construction, a company that has done work for Cosmos. But Lee called that a “dead end” for investigators, saying Atlas has never done business with Pelican.

He said Pelican is “unfamiliar” with Global Trading of Louisiana, another business that surfaced in the warrant.

Federal investigators also are eyeing the school’s relationship with Prestige Commercial Cleaning & Construction, LLC, which Pelican contracted for custodial services at Kenilworth and the Abramson Science & Technology Charter School of New Orleans, a school that had its charter rescinded by BESE in 2011.

Lee said Prestige won the contract because it offered a bid 25 percent lower than Aramark, the company performing maintenance at Kenilworth when Pelican took over the chronically low-performing middle school in 2009.

Lee described Prestige as a company “owned by a gentleman of Turkish descent, unrelated to these folks on the board, a few of whom are Turkish.” Pelican later hired Gulf Coast Cleaning and Maintenance LLC, of Baton Rouge, but has since taken its custodial services in house in an effort to curb costs.

“In terms of backing up all the payments to Prestige and proper purchase orders and proper invoices and checks, I’ve seen it all,” Lee said. “It’s all there.”

The warrant further sought records from the school relating to Skyline Travel and Transportation LLC, a contractor that provided bus services to Kenilworth until this year. Skyline is based in Baton Rouge and registered to an Enes Tuncer, according to the Secretary of State. Prestige is registered to Ufuk Tuncer, of New Orleans, but Lee said he didn’t know if the two were related.

UTA-USA of Louisiana, a contractor that performed jobs at Abramson, appears in the warrant, along with three companies based in Houston: The American Dream Agency (known alternatively as the American New Dream Agency), Helix Design & Production and Bizwe Travel Agency.

Helix, which according to Lee is owned by a Turkish-American citizen, has been used by Harmony charter schools in Texas for marketing purposes and provided Web and print design for the Pelican schools in Louisiana. Pelican has since shifted its printing business to a Baton Rouge company.

Bizwe, which Lee said also is owned by a Turkish-American citizen, sourced airline tickets and arranged other transportation for Pelican. The American Dream Agency provided supplies, managed science fair activities at Abramson and coordinated cultural activities and exchanges, Lee said.

As a cloud of uncertainty has settled over Kenilworth, school officials have sought to underline progress the school has made since Pelican took over, including steady improvements in performance scores. The state increased Kenilworth’s letter grade from an F to a C after the 2012-13 school year, clearing the way for the school to seek a five-year renewal of its charter, which was granted Dec. 5. The school was among just five in East Baton Rouge Parish that improved by more than one grade level since last year.

The Louisiana Department of Education launched an investigation into Kenilworth in 2011 after BESE voted to close its sister charter school Abramson, which was beset by allegations of failing to act on claims of sexual misconduct by students and attempted bribery of a state auditor. Documents released at the time suggested the probe was examining how the school handled special education, which involves federal dollars, the ratio of special education teachers to students and a high number of uncertified teachers, among other matters.

But in an interview this month, Joan Hunt, the state education agency’s general counsel, described the Kenilworth investigation as little more than a document check that was completed soon after it began. Unlike Abramson, Hunt said, Kenilworth’s issues were unexceptional and dealt with easily.

“The bottom line is there was nothing,” she said.