A check for nearly $5,000 that was drawn on the nonprofit TM Landry College Prep School Foundation’s bank account last year helped pay a debt that had nothing to do with the embattled school.

Instead, it settled the St. Martin Parish property tax bill of Domanick Williams, a former LSU football star who apparently had a personal financial dispute with TM Landry’s co-founder and head teacher, Michael Landry.

Williams told The Advocate that Landry needed “to make some things right.” Williams would not specify what those things were, but said they were “personal things, not concerning the school, but concerning Mr. Mike Landry.

“He just used that school check, or whatever he done, to try to make some things right on the personal side,” said Williams, who played football for the NFL’s Houston Texans for three years before retiring in 2005. Williams declined further comment, saying “things are still being investigated,” though he would not identify the agency or individual conducting the investigation.

The payee on the check for $4,916.30, drawn on the school foundation account, was the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office, which collects property taxes in the parish. It was signed by Landry’s wife, Tracey Landry, listed in state records as the foundation’s president. The check, which The Advocate obtained through a public-records request, along with documentation showing it was applied to Williams’ account, was dated April 16, 2018.

That was about six weeks before Michael Landry informed school parents via text of an upcoming deadline to pay for a handheld computer product, called a Raspberry Pi.

“The $60 for the Raspberry Pi and book is due Monday. All high school and middle school students are required to purchase it,” Landry said in a message on May 28, 2018.

More than 40 parents paid $60 or $65 directly to the school for the device, but they got nothing in return, according to interviews with eight people who were previously affiliated with the school, including former parents, employees and a student. Others interviewed were affiliated with the school but not involved with Raspberry Pi. Some of those interviewed taught while their children attended.

In a written statement provided by the foundation board’s chairman, Greg Davis, the board said parents were “ASKED, (NOT REQUIRED) to participate in a program involving the devices,” but “circumstances dictated that initial plans to acquire the Raspberry Pi devices be scrapped.” The foundation board said parents were charged $50, not $60 as indicated in Landry’s text.

“Every meeting, he would talk about it. He would tell these kids, ‘I need your money for your Raspberry Pi. I need your money for your Raspberry Pi,” said one of the former employees. “He would take these kids’ money, but he would never give these kids anything.”

Most of the former employees and parents who spoke with The Advocate did so on condition of anonymity, saying they feared the Landrys would retaliate against them. Some also said they feared being ostracized, since TM Landry continues to receive support from influential community leaders despite a bombshell article in The New York Times last year that tarnished the school’s glowing national reputation.

TM Landry had been celebrated for its success at sending disadvantaged students to elite colleges and universities, a reputation fueled by viral videos — seen by millions — of students reading acceptance letters. The Times, however, published detailed allegations of the Landrys falsifying transcripts and pressuring students to make up biographical narratives on their applications. The article also alleged that Michael Landry had physically assaulted students.

The article prompted additional abuse allegations that were forwarded to State Police. Those allegations are “still under review but expected to be wrapped up and sent to the D.A. shortly,” a State Police spokesman said in an email on Oct. 11, referring to the 16th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

The school’s business operations are difficult to scrutinize for a couple reasons. For one thing, it operates outside the purview of state education authorities, who have no jurisdiction over a school that does not seek public funding or curriculum approval. For another, the foundation has failed to file required tax forms.

But the property tax payment became a public record once the Sheriff's Office processed it, exposing the use of school funds for non-school purposes. That and the Raspberry Pi episode raise new questions about how the Landrys have managed the school’s finances, and in particular whether the school’s finances are intertwined with those of the Landrys.

The Landrys' income depends on school enrollment, according to filings in their Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which was open from 2015 to 2017. That case followed a succession of three personal bankruptcies, all of which were dismissed when the Landrys failed to make payments.

State laws that govern nonprofit corporations are based on legal principles known as “duty of care” and “duty of loyalty,” which require that charity directors act to advance the missions of their organizations, said Philip Hackney, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and former lawyer for the Internal Revenue Service who specializes in nonprofit regulations.

Using foundation money to pay Williams’ property taxes might well constitute a legal violation, Hackney said.

“If this went to a private individual to settle a dispute associated with Mr. Landry, that would violate the duty of loyalty,” Hackney said. “Now you are using the money of the nonprofit entity, the corporate nonprofit entity, to fulfill your own purposes.”

The IRS recognizes the TM Landry foundation as a tax-exempt charity, meaning it is required to disclose financial information in a public document — called a Form 990 — if it generates more than $50,000 in annual gross revenue. Tuition and enrollment numbers suggest it brings in far more than that, but the foundation has yet to submit a Form 990 in its two and a half years of existence.

The school was founded in 2005, but it operated without a corporate entity until the Landrys formed a limited liability company in early 2015, shortly after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The foundation was formed two years later, toward the end of the bankruptcy. 

The foundation board said the failure to file the Form 990 was an “oversight,” and that the school is working to “implement best practice accounting procedures and processes for all school administrative matters, including, most particularly, fiscal concerns.”

“A thorough internal fiscal evaluation should be done to gain a true and complete appreciation for the status of the school’s operations. Only after such examinations take place may appropriate filings go forward,” the board’s statement reads.

‘Typical Mike’

Michael Landry, reached by telephone on Oct. 10, said the property tax payment was a “mistake” that had been “corrected.”

Asked how it was corrected, Landry said he would call back later that day. He did not call back, nor did he respond to subsequent text messages and a voicemail. Tracey Landry did not respond to multiple calls and a text message.

The foundation board said the property tax payment was unauthorized, describing it as an “error.” Accounting procedures for the “newly created” nonprofit foundation was “obviously confusing to those responsible for working with the account,” the board’s statement reads.

A school employee “inadvertently and erroneously” deposited private funds meant for the Landrys into the foundation account, and then withdrew those same funds from the foundation account to cut a check for the property tax payment, according to the board’s statement.

The memo line of the foundation check indicates it was for taxes for the building the school was leasing at the time, at 1800 Rees St. in Breaux Bridge. 

“Mr. Landry failed to notice the wrong account was shown on the deposit slip or the check, and he did not notice the notation on the memo line of the check when he signed it and stuffed the check in an envelope. These over-sights show a lack of fiscal safeguards in operations but illustrate there was no intent to do wrong,” the board’s statement says.

The check bears the signature of Tracey Landry, not Michael Landry. The owner of the Rees Street building, Neal Hebert, did not return calls. The board declined to identify the employee who cut the check.

Regarding the Raspberry Pi devices that were never delivered, the board said in its statement the school had offered refunds, but “many parents communicated, informally, that the school could keep the fifty dollars to use as the school saw fit." The statement added that the board “knows of no parent that requested a refund of these funds who has not received them.”

The refund offer came more than six months after Landry's text reminding parents to pay, and two weeks after the damaging Times article. Enrollment was declining at that time, and the refund was available only to "anyone currently enrolled," according to a December 2018 message that a school employee sent to parents. Parents could submit a written request for a refund "if necessary," according to the message, which the board shared with The Advocate. 

One parent who was quoted in the Times article, Letarchia Lewis, told The Advocate she paid $120 for Raspberry Pi devices for two of her children. Lewis said she and the others featured in the article had left the school by the end of August 2018, four months before the message offering refunds to those still enrolled.

Lewis and other parents who spoke to The Advocate said unexpected, mandatory and confusing fees were a common occurrence. The Raspberry Pi was initially only required for students interested in a robotics class, Lewis said.

“Then all of sudden, everybody needed it, everybody had to have it,” she said.

Eric Sullivan, who taught at the school last year while his son also attended, said students and parents were asking about refunds throughout the fall of 2018.

“People were asking about their Raspberry Pis all the time,” said Sullivan, whose son never received the device. “(Michael Landry) would come up with something about why they weren’t happening, and Tracey would say ‘Well, if it’s not going to happen, we’ll get you refunds later.’ It was typical Mike delay. It was just typical Mike.”

Only one of the parents who told The Advocate they paid for the device said they were aware of the refund offer. That parent was Connie Fields-Meaux, who said she also worked at the school for seven months ending in May 2018. Fields-Meaux was the employee who notified parents they could request a refund, which she said Tracey Landry instructed her to do.

Fields-Meaux did not herself ask for a refund, she said, because she was told that once the school “had been reestablished, everyone would be given the Raspberry Pi.”

Field-Meaux declined to answer any additional questions “unless I have legal representation.”

In its statement, the board said the school is now "very willing to work toward accommodation with any parent so this issue may be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all concerned."

‘He would threaten kids all the time’

The last year has been tumultuous for the school. Three months after the Times article, the school suddenly vacated the building it was leasing in Breaux Bridge amid pressure from the State Fire Marshal’s Office to make safety improvements. The fire marshal temporarily blocked the school from operating at its new home, a former skating rink on Moss Street in Lafayette, until it came up with a safety plan. Enrollment dropped from more than 100 to about 60 in the first half of the year.

Some former teachers say Michael Landry played hardball to keep kids at the school. Sullivan said Michael Landry threatened to criticize students to college admissions counselors if they left. Another former teacher, whose employment predated Sullivan’s, said she had heard Landry make similar threats.

“He would threaten the kids all the time. ‘If you think about leaving, I’ll ruin you.’ That’s the reason why we stayed. Just keep our head down, just take it,” said Sullivan, who pulled his son out after The Times article was published.

Through the board’s statement, Landry said allegations that he threatened to smear students who considered leaving have “NO BASIS IN FACT.”

“We do not deny that Mr. Landry made demands of his students AS ANY SCHOOL TEACHER DOES, but that notion that Mr. Landry would resort to extortive demands to force unwilling parents or students to remain at the school is indicative of a lack of understanding of the T.M. Landry educational process and philosophies,” the statement reads.

The foundation hired a New Orleans law firm, Couhig Partners, to investigate the allegations in the Times article, and the firm tapped a former state superintendent of education, Paul Pastorek, to lead the probe. The final report found “no systemic effort” to falsify college applications, despite isolated incidents of “less-than-stellar record keeping” and “lack of attention to detail.”

The “overall conclusions” section of the report is complimentary of the school, noting that “it appears to have been a genuine incubator for success.”

Pastorek’s first-person summary downplayed physical abuse allegations, despite Michael Landry’s 2013 guilty plea for beating a student. The victim in that case claimed that Landry choked, whipped, slapped and slammed him down, an account that witnesses supported, according to a St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office report. Pastorek’s summary described that episode as “a spanking incident,” which is how Landry characterized it to sheriff’s investigators.

Pastorek said in a news conference he had not seen the Sheriff’s Office report.

Email Ben Myers at bmyers@theadvocate.com. Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.