Review Finds No Conflict by Credit Panel Chief

By David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 17, 2009

The District's attorney general has concluded that the chair of a panel that awards funds to charter schools did not violate conflict-of-interest laws but said her committee needs to strengthen its rules to prevent future problems.

"I find no need for further inquiry," Peter Nickles wrote yesterday to Barbara "Bobbie" Hart, who chairs the D.C. charter school credit enhancement committee. But Nickles added that the committee of unpaid appointees should tighten its ethics policies.

Nickles's conclusions are similar to ones he reached Wednesday about the District's Public Charter School Board and its chairman, Thomas A. Nida. His inquiries followed reports last month in The Washington Post that key members of the charter board and the credit committee had taken part in official decisions that stood to benefit themselves, their colleagues, their employers or companies with which they have business ties.

Members of the credit committee or their employers have had financial ties to about a third of the applicants or projects that the committee has voted to fund with public money since 2000, The Post found. For example, Hart, a vice president at Adams National Bank, handled a $10.6 million charter school loan that was contingent on $3 million in funding from her committee.

Nickles said he decided that Hart had recused herself from committee matters in which her bank "had a direct interest" and had not benefited personally.

Nickles said that the issues raised in the Post articles "remain troubling." He suggested that the credit committee put recusals in writing, adopt standards on gifts, undergo regular ethics training and improve personal financial disclosure.

Hart could not be reached for comment yesterday. A spokeswoman for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which oversees the credit committee, said that the agency already is tightening policies and that "we'll continue working to incorporate Mr. Nickles's recommendations."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company