More charges possible in complex Philadelphia charter-school case

Dorothy June Brown, free on $1.5 million bail, is charged with 50 counts.
Dorothy June Brown, free on $1.5 million bail, is charged with 50 counts. (APRIL SAUL / Staff)
Posted: August 02, 2012

Federal prosecutors unveiled a 62-count indictment against charter school mogul Dorothy June Brown and four codefendants last week, and said in court papers that additional charges could be lodged.

"This is an ongoing criminal investigation," the U.S. Attorney's Office said in documents filed Friday in U.S. District Court, "and the government anticipates that it may seek the return of a superseding indictment that adds charges against some of the current defendants and potentially other persons not yet charged."

The government made the statement in a motion asking Senior Judge R. Barclay Surrick to allow more time to begin the criminal trial because the case is complex and the evidence is voluminous. No trial date has been set.

The four-year probe that led to Brown and four administrators being charged with defrauding three charter schools of $6.5 million involved 100 interviews, "approximately 100 computer hard drives and other electronic media devices that were seized in the course of the investigation," thousands of e-mails, and more than 130 boxes of records, the motion said.

The indictment covers a period of more than six years, five defendants, and five different criminal laws, the court filing said. And the actions outlined in the indictment "allegedly involved the use of sophisticated and complex means, including the fabrication of a large volume of school records, board meeting minutes," board resolutions, financial records, loan agreements, and contracts.

"This case is so unusual and complex due to the nature of the prosecution and the number of witnesses and documents that it is unreasonable to expect adequate preparation" would be possible under the federal Speedy Trial Act. That 1974 law generally calls for trials to begin within 70 days from arraignment, unless those provisions have been waived.

Surrick has not yet ruled, but U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger and Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony G. Kyriakakis said in their filing that three of the defense attorneys said they would not oppose the request for more time. The other lawyers could not be reached before the motion was filed and did not respond to requests for comment.

'Speedy Trial' clock

Gilbert J. Scutti, a former federal prosecutor, said it was not unusual for the government to seek additional time for such a case.

"It's fairly common when you have an indictment with multiple defendants and multiple counts for the government to try to stop the 'Speedy Trial' clock," said Scutti, now a defense attorney in Philadelphia and South Jersey. "The bottom line is, both sides need a lot of time to prepare for the trial."

The government's request is the most recent action since Memeger announced July 24 that a federal grand jury had indicted Brown and four codefendants on multiple criminal charges.

Brown, 75, of Haverford, the founder of four area charter schools, was charged with 50 counts of wire fraud; conspiracy to obstruct justice; nine counts of obstruction of justice; and witness tampering.

Joan Woods Chalker, 74, of Springfield, Delaware County, was charged with 23 counts of wire fraud; conspiracy to obstruct justice; and six counts of obstructing justice.

Michael A. Slade Jr., 31, of Philadelphia, and Anthony Smoot, 49, of New Castle, Del., were both charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice.

Courteney L. Knight, 64, of King of Prussia, was charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Released on bail

All pleaded not guilty late last week. Chalker and Slade were released on $50,000 bail each while Smoot and Knight were released on $25,000 bail.

Brown was released as well, but on a much higher bail - $1.5 million. She secured it with her home in Haverford.

A former Philadelphia School District principal, Brown founded three small K-8 charter schools in Philadelphia: Laboratory, which has campuses in Northern Liberties, Overbrook, and Wynnefield; Ad Prima in Overbrook; and Planet Abacus in Tacony.

In 2005 she also helped create the Agora Cyber Charter School, which provides online in-home instruction to students from across the state.

Four years later, Brown was forced to sever all ties with Agora to settle several civil suits. Now based in Wayne, Agora continues to operate under new leadership and a new board.

The charter schools Brown founded account for four of the 18 area charters under federal investigation since 2008. In April of that year, The Inquirer reported that there were allegations of fiscal mismanagement and nepotism at Philadelphia Academy Charter School in the Northeast and that the School District's inspector general was investigating.

Philadelphia Academy's founder committed suicide the following spring, shortly before federal criminal charges were announced. Philadelphia Academy's former chief executive and former board president were sent to federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud charges in 2010.

Last week's indictment brought the total number of local charter officials charged with federal crimes since 2008 to nine.

In addition to Philadelphia Academy's one-time officials, the former chief executive and former board president of New Media Technology Charter School in the city's Stenton section pleaded guilty to stealing $522,000 in taxpayer funds to prop up a restaurant, a health-food store, and a private school they controlled, and to defrauding a bank.

Earlier this month, a federal judge sentenced Hugh C. Clark, New Media's former board president, to 24 months in federal prison. Ina Walker, the school's former chief executive, received a six-month sentence.


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|