Two years after the FBI raided the Kenilworth Science & Technology Charter School in Baton Rouge, carting away boxes of documents and casting a cloud of suspicion over the institution, the U.S. Justice Department has pulled the plug on the investigation without filing charges.
U.S. Attorney Walt Green informed the school’s attorneys last week that his office has ended its long-running probe into the school’s financial dealings, and he confirmed in a brief interview Tuesday that no indictments are pending. The state Inspector General’s Office, which conducted a related inquiry, also has closed its books without bringing charges — a decision the school touts as overdue vindication.
“They had access to everything that Kenilworth and Pelican had, both digitally and down to the last scrap of paper, and they found nothing worthy of any charges,” said Andrew R. Lee, a New Orleans attorney who represents the school and its nonprofit operator, Pelican Educational Foundation.
Lee suggested that Kenilworth is “maybe the most investigated charter school in America, with all the various investigations that have gone on.”
“That should say something that still there is nothing of interest to the authorities,” he added. “If you can’t find wrongdoing when you’ve got every single byte of data, then you can’t make a case, and I don’t know what the case would have been.”
The good news for Kenilworth coincided with the return of students from winter break. Tevfik Eski, Pelican’s chief executive officer, said he plans to send Kenilworth parents a letter on Wednesday. Eski said he appreciates the investigators providing the school with the closure letter, noting it’s something they didn’t have to do.
In any case, Eski said he had no doubt the school would be cleared eventually.
“From the first day, we knew that we did not do anything wrong,” Eski said. “We continued to focus and do our job. We knew that one day we were going to receive this letter.”
The investigation into Pelican, which goes back to at least 2010, cast a pall of uncertainty over the charter school organization. Eski said the school’s veteran faculty and students stuck with the middle school and the school had waiting lists throughout the investigation — its current enrollment is about 550. Even so, he acknowledged that the ongoing federal investigation made it harder to recruit new students and teachers.
The decision not to pursue charges makes it less likely the full extent of the federal government’s suspicions will ever be made public. Authorities have declined to discuss the specifics of what piqued their interest, and school officials also claim they do not know exactly what prompted a team of FBI agents to descend on the Kenilworth campus unannounced in December 2013.
“I would say that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baton Rouge handled this extremely professionally,” Lee said. “We’re going to move on with a much brighter future.”
As a charter school, Kenilworth is a public school run by a private nonprofit group, Pelican, pursuant to a state contract. The school opened in August 2009 when it took over a traditional but chronically low-performing Baton Rouge middle school at 2600 Boone Drive, also called Kenilworth. After struggling initially, by its third year in operation, the Kenilworth charter school improved its letter grade to a C, clearing the way for an automatic five-year charter renewal in late 2013, approved six days before the federal raid. The school’s grade has slipped in the two years since, and it now possesses a low D.
Investigators who visited the school on Dec. 11, 2013, apparently had been scrutinizing Kenilworth’s dealings with a host of vendors, including those providing services such as busing and cleaning. The Advocate reported in January 2014 that federal authorities had targeted financial records of nine companies that did business with the school. A search warrant also authorized agents to take personnel files of employees, tax records and board meeting minutes.
In all, Lee said, agents interviewed about a dozen people affiliated with Pelican or its vendors. “It was mostly financial dealings that we were questioned about,” Lee said. “We were completely cooperative throughout. If they had questions, we answered them.”
At one point, Lee said, investigators asked about a bid Pelican awarded for bus services to a company that had offered a rate slightly more expensive than the lowest bidder. School officials explained they had chosen the company because it provided more direct routes. The school has since shifted to using Cincinnati-based First Student Inc.
Perhaps the highest-profile affiliate of the school named in the search warrant was the Cosmos Foundation, a large charter school operator in Texas that partnered with Pelican to provide support services. State officials counted that relationship as a plus in approving Pelican’s application to open a charter school in Louisiana.
But Cosmos, which operates as Harmony Public Schools, has been criticized for its business practices, including its tendency to favor Turkish-owned firms in the awarding of contracts.
The New York Times reported in 2011 that some of the schools’ founders and suppliers are followers of the global Hizmet movement inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a controversial Islamic scholar living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey considers Gülen a fugitive and, accusing him of an attempted coup, recently listed him as a most-wanted terrorist.
Lee, the New Orleans attorney, has denied that Kenilworth is a “Gülen school” but acknowledged last year that school leaders “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.”
Pelican previously operated the Abramson Science & Technology Charter School of New Orleans, which had its charter rescinded in 2011 by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Eski said he’s glad the investigation is finally over.
“We have been very cooperative, and we are happy that American justice has prevailed,” he said.