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CPD In the News

| Holding Charter Schools Accountable, Organizing for Education Justice
Published By:NOLA.com

Milestone charter's credit fraud has produced no criminal charges

Milestone Academy is the latest New Orleans–area charter school where theft has gone unpunished for months after it was discovered. No one has filed charges against former chief executive D'Juan Hernandez for putting $13,000 of personal expenses on a school credit card, according to an audit released Monday (April 18).

Hernandez quit in June 2014. The audit covers only the rest of that calendar year, but new Milestone chief executive LaKeisha Robichaux said Monday nothing had changed. In addition, Jefferson Parish clerk records showed no case against Hernandez.

This is hardly the first time that it's taken months for local charter school employees to face criminal charges for alleged financial crimes. Typically, lax oversight lets a member of the finance team profit from wrongdoing until someone notices odd gaps in the reports.

Ten months after someone stole almost $70,000 from the KIPP charter network, a criminal investigation was still underway.

Someone stole almost $26,000 from Lake Area New Tech High in 2014; more than a year later, police had not found a culprit.

New Orleans Military/Maritime Academy employee Darral Sims took $31,000 during the 2011-12 school year but had not been charged as of early 2013.

Lusher accountant Lauren Hightower had not been charged with a crime more than a year after she paid herself $25,000.

The Center for Popular Democracy issued a report in 2015 blaming Louisiana state education officials for cutting corners on oversight.

At Milestone, the theft followed a tumultuous year. The governing board dropped its for-profit management company only a couple of months before school was to start. Hernandez, the board attorney, stepped in to run the school. The school also struggled to improve long-languishing academic results and faced losing its Old Jefferson campus. It has since moved to Gentilly.

Hernandez quit in June, saying he was sick of a power struggle that also resulted in the departure of the principal. A month later, the financial wrongdoing emerged.

The board withheld $13,000 from Hernandez' $135,081 pay to cover the loss. It also "contacted the applicable law enforcement agencies regarding the unauthorized credit card usage," auditors from Hienz and Macaluso wrote. "However, as of the date of the audit report the school is not aware of any charges being filed in this matter. This was due to the lack of proper policies and procedures governing the acquisition and use of credit cards by the school."

Auditors said the school has since restricted credit card use to key employees. Under the new policies, no one may obtain a school credit card without written approval from the board's finance committee. All purchases "must have the same level of support as any other disbursement," auditors wrote. And school credit cards may not be used for personal purchases, cash advances or alcohol.

However, further conversations Monday showed the wheels of justice often did turn eventually:

The KIPP employee was prosecuted, spokesman Jonathan Bertsch said Monday. He added that although criminal charges took time, the charter group detected the crime within weeks.

Simms was convicted and paid restitution, Military/Maritime Academy Principal Cecilia Garcia said. The case went to court in late 2014 and early 2015. However, Simms has since had his record at least partially expunged, according to Garcia and Orleans Parish sheriff's records.

Hightower was prosecuted and convicted, Lusher spokeswoman Heather Harper Cazayoux said. Hightower's LinkedIn account indicates that she now works as a florist at a Harvey Winn-Dixie. 

Former Arise Schools employee Quinton Barrow pleaded guilty on May 7, 2015, to stealing $9,000. He was ordered to pay restitution but then failed to appear to pay in June, according to Orleans Parish sheriff's records. 

And the biggest local charter school crime resulted in serious jail time: Langston Hughes Academy's financial manager was sentenced to five years in federal prison for stealing about $660,000.

An employee stole about $2,000 from Lake Forest Charter in 2013. As of early 2015, the school's board president would not identify the employee or say whether anyone had been charged. School leaders did not immediately respond to a request for an update.

By Danielle Dreilinger