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.
Belton was placed on administrative leave in June 2006, two days after investigators searched her home and office. The searches came after an employee tipped authorities off to a possible misuse of funds. News that Belton was under investigation rocked the school system, and she was later fired.
Her duties had included monitoring charter schools' student achievement and legal compliance under the No Child Left Behind law. A federal program provided the city with $1.9 million in the 2003-04 school year and $850,000 in 2004-05 to help with that effort, and Belton soon began tapping into the money for her benefit, prosecutors said.
She bypassed the city's competitive bidding process to select contractors to monitor the charter schools, according to D.C. and federal education investigators. First, she created a bid-evaluation panel, court papers say, made up of Pearl Sandifer, who was Belton's maid of honor; Lynn Long, who later opened the Washington Academy Public Charter School; and Linda Butler, then director of reading at D.C. Head Start. The panel never met, prosecutors said. Butler has said she does not recall such a panel.
Yet Belton submitted papers showing that the panel favored Equal Access Inc., a company created a few months earlier by one of Belton's longtime friends, Brenda Williams, and a former tenant at Belton's home, Nadine Evans.
The school system paid the company $65,000 for the 2002-03 school year -- the firm's first contract and the first time it made any money. At the end of that school year, board member Peggy Cooper Cafritz raised a red flag, according to sources and records, complaining about the quality of the company's reports.
Cooper Cafritz then urged Belton to seek additional "assistance" for the next year's reports from Sheila Handy, a veteran schools monitor.
Belton arranged for Handy and another veteran, Sandra Fitzgerald, to act as subcontractors to do some of the work for the 2003-04 school year; at the same time, she told Evans and Williams that their firm was no longer the monitor. The next school year, in 2004-05, Belton began the scam, fraudulently using the employer number for Equal Access Inc. to create a dummy company with a similar name, Equal Access in Education.
Even though Fitzgerald was doing the actual monitoring, Belton sent $203,000 in further monitoring payments to the dummy company -- which was based at her daughter's home.
School officials missed a chance to discover a problem, prosecutors' court filings show. The Board of Education was supposed to approve the use of Equal Access Inc. every year; tougher oversight could have revealed the dummy company.
Belton also authorized no-bid city school contracts to longtime friends Sandifer; Linda Scope; Wanda Gordon; Chonya Davis-Johnson, a former D.C. schools employee; and Verna Robinson, a cousin. Prosecutors said that the contracting was improper but added that it is unclear whether any work was done.
Prosecutors said Belton received about $180,000 in illegal payments -- from some of the same friends, including Williams, Evans, Sandifer and Scope. Some of the checks were directed to Belton companies BHX Consulting and the TAO Group as well as to Belton's daughter, Lindsey Holmes.