Clarification to This Article
Nona Richardson, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said staff members believe that Chairman Thomas A. Nida voted against an enrollment increase for William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts on Feb. 21, 2006. Mark Lerner, who is chairman of the Doar school's board and attended the 2006 meeting, said Nida voted against the increase. The board's official minutes of that meeting do not reflect that vote but instead show that Nida joined in a unanimous approval of the increase, as The Post reported in a Dec. 14 Page One article and an accompanying graphic. Richardson said a memo asserting that the minutes are incorrect would be added to the charter board's file. Nida did not respond to requests from The Post for comment on his vote.
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Public Role, Private Gain

Thomas A. Nida, bank executive and D.C. charter school board chairman, with fellow board member Dora Marcus.
Thomas A. Nida, bank executive and D.C. charter school board chairman, with fellow board member Dora Marcus. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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D.C. law dictates that "no public official shall use his or her official position or office to obtain financial gain for himself or herself, any member of his or her household, or any business with which he or she or a member of his or her household is associated."

Whether an official's conduct violates the city's conflict-of-interest law is decided "on a case-by-case basis," said Kathy Williams, general counsel for the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, which enforces the District's ethics rules. "The vote is the pivotal point, because therein lies whether there was any financial gain -- business, financial, familial or otherwise."

Nida expressed surprise that the law is so sweeping and said he views the issue of conflicts of interest "more narrowly than that." He added: "I have not had anybody raise the issue heretofore."

He said he believes that he dealt with the potential conflict involving the Elsie Whitlow Stokes school by notifying other board members about the bank loan and recusing himself from the board's final vote.

Nida said United Bank pays him an annual bonus based in part on how much loan business he generates. He said he did not receive any commission on the loan to Elsie Whitlow Stokes or any other charter school. "Did I personally benefit? No," Nida said. "United Bank does not compensate that way to anybody."

James Consagra, president and chief executive of United Bank, did not respond to questions about Nida's compensation or his involvement with charter lending. He e-mailed a statement saying that United takes "the proper steps to prevent conflicts of interest. This includes ensuring those who may have a perceived conflict are not involved in the lending-decision process."

Building With Tax Dollars

Since 1996, the District has spent more than $2 billion in local and federal funds to build and operate charter schools. Much of that public money has gone to buy, lease and renovate school buildings that are now in private hands. Charter schools typically finance their property purchases or renovations with multimillion-dollar loans from banks and other lenders. They repay those loans using their guaranteed funding from the city. In addition to funding charters' educational operations, the District is one of the few jurisdictions in the country to provide charters with a per-child cash "facilities allotment."

The system has provided some charter students with new buildings that are among the best-equipped in the city. It also has benefited charter schools' landlords, developers, bankers and investors while taxpayers fund two separate school infrastructures.

"They are using public money to finance private real estate development," said Anne Dougherty, a community activist who opposed locating a charter school in a neighborhood where two traditional public schools were closing.

Charter schools are overseen by unpaid political appointees on two panels created by Congress. One is the charter board, which has authority over who can open a charter school, how fast schools can grow and when they should be forced out of business. Its members are appointed by the mayor from a list provided by the federal executive branch. The other is the five-member D.C. Public Charter School Credit Enhancement and Direct Loan Funds Committee, which awards millions of dollars in taxpayer loans and guarantees to charter schools and their developers. Appointments to the committee are split between the public charter board and the mayor's office.

Nida is not the only member of those bodies whose private business interests intersected with a public role, The Post's review found.

Barbara "Bobbie" Hart, who chairs the credit enhancement committee, which has awarded $47 million in taxpayer financing in the past seven years to private ventures involving charters, is also a vice president at Adams National Bank and markets loans to charter schools. Since she was appointed to the committee in 2006, it has repeatedly awarded funding to Hart's loan customers, records show. Hart has recused herself from all but two votes involving applicants that had given her loan business or were about to, records show. Hart declined to comment.

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