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School paid its CFO extra to do accounting work, ethics board alleges

The chief financial officer for a charter school is accused of violating state ethics law by being paid on the side to do accounting for the school.

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy paid Brent Washington Sr. $54,500 for the work from 2014 to 2016. That’s on top of his annual salary, which was $75,000 in the 2016-17 school year, according to state records.

In October, the Louisiana Board of Ethics formally charged him with violating state laws that prohibit public employees from contracting with the government agency that employs them and from receiving anything of economic value for services closely related to their job.

Like most schools in New Orleans, Harney is a publicly funded charter school overseen by a private nonprofit. Charter school employees are generally considered public employees and are subject to the same ethics laws as people who work for other government agencies.

Washington started at Harney in Central City on Oct. 15, 2013, according to the charges. Before that, he was chief financial officer of a charter school that closed earlier that year.

On July 1, 2014, he entered into an agreement with the school to provide accounting services for $75 an hour, according to the Board of Ethics.

He was paid $22,000 in 2014, $25,500 in 2015 and $7,000 in 2016 for accounting services, according to the charges.

Washington did not return calls seeking comment. Nor did his attorney Kenya Rounds, who also represents the school.

The ethics board voted to file the charges in March, but they weren’t publicly filed until October. In the meantime, the charter school left the oversight of the Recovery School District for the Orleans Parish School Board.

Both school districts have voiced concerns about the school’s finances.

In October, the Orleans Parish School Board requested documents related to Washington’s ownership in any companies that held contracts with the school. The letter stated the district would keep a close eye on the school.

When the school did not respond, the district issued a notice of non-compliance. That letter was sent five days after the ethics board filed charges against Washington.

The documents were submitted in the last two days, district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said. The Lens filed a public records request for the documents.

The Lens also asked the school for any contracts related to Washington.

Louisiana Secretary of State records show he’s associated with seven companies, but they’re all inactive. City records show he has a permit to operate an accounting business, Brent D. Washington & Co., from his home in eastern New Orleans.

At a Dec. 5, 2016, meeting, Harney’s board approved a contract with “consultant Rhonda Clark and CFO Brent Washington” for “expansion of Spirit of Excellence Schools.” The annual amount of the contract was redacted, although meeting minutes and financial transactions are public records.

That was the same meeting at which board members heard about reductions in staff due to a budget shortfall.

The Rev. Charles Southall, president of the board, declined to discuss the ethics charges. “We’re going to deal with that as a board,” he said.

In June, the Recovery School District sent a “notice of concern” to Harney for failing to provide a host of records, including minutes of the board’s finance committee, financial disclosures for board members and school financial reports.

In July, board member Ashton Ryan Jr., the former head of the now-defunct First NBC Bank, asked to have his name removed from financial documents. The board approved his request.

Southall claimed the Orleans Parish school district was preparing to rescind the non-compliance notice.  Ellis said that decision hasn’t been made.

Ethics charges can take years to resolve. In 2012, the board charged Robert Russa Moton Charter School CEO Paulette Bruno with violating nepotism law. Two years later, Friends of King CEO Doris Hicks and three of her relatives were charged with violating ethics law, too. Both cases are pending.

Harney principal Aisha Jones said last week that Washington still works at the school. His current salary is $86,000, according to a state Department of Education spokeswoman.

Jones took over as principal in December after the departure of Principal Lynn Rhodes-Polk, who herself took over after the prior principal left at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

A status conference for the ethics case is set for Feb. 27.

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.