Another Brown employee says he forged signature

Dorothy June Brown. Her management is at issue in the $6.7 million federal fraud trial. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Dorothy June Brown. Her management is at issue in the $6.7 million federal fraud trial. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 22, 2013

After one of Dorothy June Brown's former top aides testified in federal court Wednesday about creating bogus documents to help Brown profit from the four charter schools she founded, another former key employee came forward to say he had done the same.

Joan Woods Chalker, 75, who has pleaded guilty to obstruction charges in the case, conceded during cross-examination that she hoped her cooperation with prosecutors would spare her time in prison.

"It would be a hope," Chalker told Gregory P. Miller, one of Brown's attorneys, when pressed about any benefits of her plea agreement.

Chalker had been charged with more than 25 counts of wire fraud and obstruction of justice, but pleaded guilty last month to just three counts of obstruction. The sentencing guidelines suggest a prison term of 12 to 18 months, Miller said, although prosecutors could ask for less when Chalker is sentenced in January.

That prospect, Miller said, was far less than the "years and years in jail" Chalker would have faced if she had been convicted of more than 25 counts.

Chalker, a former kindergarten teacher, worked for Brown for more than 25 years. Until stepping down in March, she was chief executive of Planet Abacus in the city's Tacony section, one of Brown's four charters.

During more than four hours on the stand, Chalker recounted instances of manufacturing charter board meeting minutes, preparing phony resolutions, and forging a signature on a doctored contract between Planet Abacus and AcademicQuest L.L.C., a management company Brown owned.

But during Miller's cross-examination, Chalker admitted she had not told Brown about the forged signature.

Chalker also said she now believed she participated in a scheme to defraud Planet Abacus even though in 2009, she had told auditors on a standard questionnaire she didn't suspect fraud might be occurring at the school.

"At that time, I didn't think there was any," Chalker said.

Wednesday was the eighth day of testimony in the $6.7 million federal fraud trial, which could last six weeks.

Also Wednesday, Anthony Smoot, former business manager of Brown's charter network, admitted that he had forged the signature of James D. Marshall Jr., president of Agora Cyber Charter School, on a contract with Cynwyd Group L.L.C., another Brown management firm.

"Dr. Brown asked me to sign his name," Smoot said, adding that Marshall is his cousin.

He also testified that binders of charter board minutes disappeared from his office for at least two months in 2009, and that when the binders were returned, they were fatter and contained more resolutions and other information.

Smoot, who pleaded guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice in March, said he was overwhelmed handling the finances as Brown's school network expanded and he fell behind.

He eventually received help, but Smoot said he was fired in June 2010, two days after federal agents conducted a search of Brown's administrative offices in Bala Cynwyd and seized computers and boxes of documents. He said a coworker told him people thought the raid stemmed from a tip he had given to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Smoot said he had spoken to federal investigators before the raid but lied when Brown asked him if he had spoken to federal authorities who served the first of several subpoenas for financial records in 2008.

Smoot said the termination letter claimed he had made a threat to kill charter staffers.

He said a complaint was filed that day against him in Lower Merion, and police warned him he would be arrested if he tried to return to Brown's office.

Smoot told jurors he had not made the threats.

His cross-examination is scheduled to begin when the trial resumes in federal court Monday.


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