District's Ex-Charter Schools Chief Admits Fraud

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007

Brenda Belton had some gall, by her own admission. As charter school oversight chief for the D.C. Board of Education, she repeatedly stole from the school system, arranging about $649,000 in illegal school payments and sweetheart contracts to herself and her friends.

Yesterday, she pleaded guilty to four felony counts of cheating the low-performing schools system over three years and trying to avoid taxes on her ill-gotten gains.

The former schools executive revealed numerous instances of the system's supervisors failing to catch on to what she was doing -- even as she was forging signatures, fabricating invoices and depositing taxpayer money into her bank account.

Belton, 61, admitted to U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina that she steered about $446,000 in seven no-bid contracts to friends and a cousin and stole $203,000 by paying school funds to a fictitious company she controlled. At the same time, she received $180,000 in illegal payments and kickbacks from friends she helped with school business. The crimes took place from March 2003 to May 2006, prosecutors said.

"Are these statements true and accurate?" Urbina asked Belton after Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy C. Lynch described the details of the government's evidence.

"Yes, they are true," she answered in a muffled voice.

During sentencing in November, Belton will face a likely term of 30 to 37 months in prison for theft and tax evasion charges. She has agreed to pay restitution of $383,000, most of which will go back to the school system.

She does not have to repay the money involved in the no-bid contracts because the investigation has not established that she directly benefited or that the city got no work for the money. No one else has been charged in the case.

Prosecutors say Belton's crimes grew more brazen as the Board of Education and public school system dozed. According to law enforcement authorities, Belton's case illustrates the major challenges that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee face in placing controls on city school funds.

"Not only is this conduct outrageous, it takes money away from kids in our schools," U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor said. "But it also feeds the cynicism about the school system. We stand with the city officials in trying to preserve the integrity of the system."

Accompanied by her attorney, Vincent Cohen Jr., Belton left the courthouse with her eyes downcast and without commenting. In court, she provided no explanation for her conduct.

The crimes began almost immediately after Belton became chief executive of the board's Office of Charter School Oversight in March 2003. Previously a D.C. schools grant writer and consultant, she was hired to oversee 17 charter schools under the Board of Education's auspices. The Public Charter School Board supervised 34 other charter schools.

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