Records show state activity during FBI probe of school

The state Department of Education showed little interest in an ongoing federal probe into a Baton Rouge charter school even as the agency completed its own lengthy but much different examination to see if the school deserved to have its charter renewed, according to department records.

The records were released to The Advocate in response to a public records request.

The federal probe, which the state learned of by late spring 2012, is barely mentioned in the dozens of records the state has released about Kenilworth Science & Technology Charter School. The probe, which seemingly had been quiet for months, re-emerged Dec. 11 when the FBI raided the school six days after the agency renewed the Baton Rouge school’s charter through the year 2019.

The search warrant, which The Advocate first disclosed Sunday, revealed that federal authorities have been seeking financial records from Kenilworth relating to nine companies. Most of these companies are owned by individuals of Turkish descent, and seven of them have done business with the school.

In a statement released Monday, the Department of Education said it will wait for “official findings” before “making any determination whether the department is compelled to take a further look into the operations of a school.”

The same night as the raid, state Superintendent John White sent an email to members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which had just voted to renew Kenilworth’s charter, updating them about the “unspecified investigation” and said his office had no prior notice of the raid.

The next day, White wrote a letter to State Inspector General Stephen Street, whose office participated in the Kenilworth raid, assuring Street that the Department of Education will “fully assist any law enforcement agency,” noting that “a charter school’s continued authority operates not just on its capacities to educate children, but its integrity as an organization.”

In a TV interview Dec. 16, Chas Roemer, BESE president, said the state could still shut the school down if warranted: “If it’s determined that criminal activity occurred at this school, we’ll close it. We’ll take it away.”

In an interview with The Advocate on Thursday, Andrew R. Lee, an attorney who represents Pelican Educational Foundation, Kenilworth’s nonprofit operator, said he’s aware of no effort to close the school or reconsider its charter renewal, but that his client has received a letter from Roemer since the FBI raid.

“We did respond to Roemer’s letter, which said we needed to let (them) know if these things are going on,” Lee said.

Lee said there is concern about the impact the investigation may have on the future of the school’s charter, “but every other indication is that the department and Kenilworth get along great.”

The records released to The Advocate detail the Department of Education’s lengthy examination of Kenilworth, which opened in 2009, as it sought to renew its charter.

In 2012 and 2013, as part of the renewal process, state regulators visited the school repeatedly to make sure the school maintained its facilities, kept its finances in order, had necessary policies in place, handled student discipline, managed classroom instruction and improved test scores.

There’s no mention, though, of the school’s connection to the Turkish-led businesses the FBI is investigating, or the school’s alleged connections to the global Hizmet movement inspired by the Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.

Even as the department concluded that Kenilworth had done all it was required to do to have its charter renewed, the agency showed no apparent concern about the federal investigation, according to the records. It learned about the probe in late spring 2012 when the school’s audit for the 2010-11 fiscal year was released, months late.

LaPorte CPAs & Business Advisors revealed in October 2011, just as the firm was finishing its audit of Pelican, that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had subpoenaed financial records “regarding the foundation, a board member, and a former member of its management” but did not disclose what the investigation was about.

LaPorte representatives refused to talk about the audit to The Advocate, but a subsequent audit the following year by a different auditing firm noted the subpoenas but declared the issue resolved because there’s been “no further information requested on this matter.”

In a statement, Joan Hunt, the Department of Education’s general counsel, explained the department’s lack of response to the audit’s disclosure of those subpoenas.

“The department does not interfere in criminal investigations or the investigations of another agency that are outside our expertise or authority, be it federal, state, or local,” Hunt said. “The legislative auditor’s report found no material financial weaknesses that would compel the department to take a different course of action or look further into the educational operations of Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School.”