At the beginning of the year, Hyattsville, Maryland, Mayor Kevin “Scooter” Ward’s suicide sent shock waves throughout the D.C. metropolitan area as friends, family and colleagues mourned the loss of a rising public servant.
But the recent release of documents from a federal investigation have painted a completely different picture of a man who, as KIPP DC’s senior director of technology, allegedly purchased a home, several vehicles and sports memorabilia with $2.2 million he embezzled from the school’s coffers during the early days of the pandemic.
Weeks before Ward’s death, officials at KIPP DC conducted an internal audit that revealed irregularities in spending.
Shortly after, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice implicated Ward. Meanwhile, KIPP also conducted its own investigation with an outside contractor while regularly communicating with the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB) about corrective steps taken.
DCPCSB has since confirmed that this single incident of fraud hasn’t threatened KIPP DC’s financial viability. At a public hearing scheduled for later in September, DCPCSB – now in the midst of actualizing its multi-year Strategic Roadmap – will highlight the steps it has taken and will take in the future to prevent other incidents of fiscal malfeasance in the charter sector.
“Although the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a civil forfeiture suit to recover assets purchased using stolen funds, our work continues,” DCPCSB Executive Director Michelle J. Walker-Davis said in a statement.
“As part of our Strategic Roadmap priorities, we are planning to review, update and possibly expand our oversight policies and procedures. … We are committed to excellent schools and continuing to provide important financial oversight to public charter schools,” she said.
In a scheme that began in April 2020 and lasted for 18 months, Ward submitted invoices for the purchase of laptops, tablets and other student resources, mostly from a company named Tenret Tech. Documents show that Tenret Tech launched in April 2020. The articles of incorporation identified Ward as the authorized person and resident agent and his home address as the business headquarters.
The money spent by Ward came from KIPP’s reserves and a private grant. The civil forfeiture suit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice to recover assets purchased with stolen funds will yield $800,000. KIPP DC has also replenished its account with $1 million through an insurance provider.
Charter schools, defined as independent schools that receive public funds, must submit financial audits, annual budgets, large contracts and other relevant financial data to DCPCSB.
KIPP DC learned of Ward’s alleged dealings through the annual process, conducted in partnership with DCPCSB.
Critics have said that situations in which outside companies run local charter schools have exposed limitations of such arrangements. Earlier this year, Seth Andrew, founder of the New York City-based Democracy Preparatory network that left the Southeast neighborhood of Congress Heights in 2019, pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges.
Over the past decade, DCPCSB has endeavored to tighten standards related to spending and establishing contracts with parties related to school officials. This happened after the Office of the D.C. Attorney General accused officials at Options Public Charter School and Community Academy in 2014 of funneling millions of dollars to companies they owned.
A KIPP DC spokesperson said despite never receiving technology from Ward’s fraudulent orders, students learning from home during the pandemic used devices purchased from other vendors. Within the first few weeks of the pandemic, middle and high school students received devices that had already been in KIPP DC’s inventory.
Elementary and early-learning students also received laptops throughout the end of the 2019-2020 school year and the summer that followed. By the beginning of the last school year, each KIPP DC student had two laptops, one for school and one for home, the KIPP DC spokesperson said.
With nearly 7,000 K-12 students in dozens of schools, KIPP DC is the largest charter school network in the District. In an August 30 statement, KIPP DC officials described Ward’s misuse of funds as an anomaly and attempted to assure community members that it has rectified the situation.
“We take our financial responsibility seriously and continue to improve our financial controls and asset management based on the findings of our internal review,” the statement said. “We have worked to reduce the likelihood that fraud like this could happen again by closing any gaps in our existing systems, making organizational design changes, implementing new policies and procedures within the systems we have and evaluating longer term systemic solutions.”