By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Former charter school executive Brenda Belton was able to steal or illegally steer to friends more than $800,000 over three years because of nearly nonexistent oversight by an inattentive school board, an 18-month criminal investigation found.
Even when a school employee warned board members in spring 2006 that something was amiss about the invoices Belton was approving, a divided D.C. Board of Education initially dismissed the report as unsubstantiated grousing rather than fire Belton.
So the whistleblower employee took his concerns to the D.C. inspector general, who, along with the FBI, got a search warrant for Belton's home and office. The red flags he spotted -- noting, for example, that Belton rarely showed up for work -- eventually formed the crux of a federal criminal investigation that led to Belton pleading guilty Aug. 9 to four felonies and facing significant prison time.
In admitting her crimes in federal court, Belton, 61, said that from the time she was hired as the board's charter school oversight executive in March 2003 until just before she was placed on leave in June 2006, she robbed the troubled D.C. school system of both federal and city funds. The D.C. native admitted steering $446,000 in no-bid contracts to friends, sending $203,000 in school money to a dummy company she fabricated and taking $180,000 in kickbacks and gifts from contractors she helped win school business.
She faces up to three years in prison under sentencing guidelines. Her sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 29.
The investigation of her misdeeds -- led by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Department of Education's inspector general -- suggested how Belton could so successfully steal without being detected.
She reported directly to the board, which lacked any formal structure for checking on her. There were numerous instances when the school board didn't notice red flags or failed to look more closely into them.
"The board had a lot on its plate, and on one piece, the ball was really dropped," said former board member JoAnne Ginsberg. "The board didn't pick up oversight responsibility the way it should have. People weren't paying attention." One institutional flaw, former board members say, is that the board had Belton report solely to them. The chief financial officer had no responsibility for reviewing her books. Board secretary Russell Smith recommended that Belton report to him, but the board voted against that idea. That meant that a group of overwhelmed, part-time volunteers were supposed to scrutinize Belton's work. No one took on the task.
In the wake of the Belton investigation, the board gave responsibility for monitoring charter schools to a public charter school board.
Belton was chosen as oversight executive despite some misgivings. The board chairwoman at the time, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, initially resisted hiring Belton, but the board overruled her. Belton was a former grant writer for D.C. schools and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, an important network for D.C. schools' professionals.
Cooper Cafritz warned Belton in late 2003, soon after Belton began, that reports from consultants Belton had chosen to monitor charter schools were of poor quality. The next year, Belton hired veteran consultants to write the reports but continued to pay companies run by friends and herself as if they were actually overseeing the work. She controlled large sums of federal funds meant to improve charter school performance, which some board members didn't know existed.
"Where there is a lot of money, you will have corruption unless you're on top of it," Cooper Cafritz said.
Starting in late 2005, Steven Kapani, a schools financial analyst, went to Ginsberg and Cooper Cafritz, concerned about invoices Belton had approved. Ginsberg said she saw no evidence of criminal wrongdoing but agreed with Kapani that Belton should be fired -- she wasn't coming to work, her office was routinely locked and her staff couldn't reach her or charter school records.
Ginsberg, head of an oversight committee, recommended firing Belton in April 2006. Board members Carolyn Graham, Cooper Cafritz, William Lockridge and Jeff Smith voted Ginsberg down. According to Ginsberg, the board members felt they did not have justification to fire Belton and suspected Kapani was a disgruntled employee.
Kapani then turned to D.C. investigators. He told them he distrusted the board, because when he had expressed his concerns to Cooper Cafritz, she suggested he was confused and asked him to give her the paperwork he had collected.
In an interview, Cooper Cafritz said she tried to convince Kapani to present his allegations to the full board, but he refused.
"I tried to get her [office] audited twice and was voted down," she said. "People said, 'Oh, Peggy just doesn't like Brenda.' " Graham said Kapani never made his concerns clear to the board, and Belton's work habits were not a firing offense. But Graham agrees that Belton's theft was "a board failure."
"If Mr. Kapani had come to the members of the board or the subcommittee, he would have been taken very seriously. He never did," she said. "He never shared anything that made sense. It was nothing to substantiate stealing."
Kapani was eventually put on administrative leave for a year before reaching a settlement with the school system and resigning. Former board member Tommy Wells called Kapani a "hero" who should have been retained. He said Belton's tenure was a board fiasco.
"I really thought the board was not equipped to provide oversight for the charter school board function," he said. "The board members are part time. We rely on the check and balance of audits and staff. If she had been supervised, we could have caught this a lot earlier."