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Harney charter school has fired its chief financial officer, board president says

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy terminated its chief financial officer last month amid a state ethics investigation and revelations that the school improperly delayed employees’ retirement transfers.

“Brent Washington was terminated,” the Rev. Charles Southall III, president of Harney’s board, said. “The board took action and we pulled the trigger at the end of the school year.”

Washington faces a state ethics investigation for being paid $54,500 over three years to do accounting for the school, in addition to his salary. Public employees are not allowed to contract with their agencies to do work that overlaps with their job duties.

Southall declined to say why Washington had been fired. “I’m not going to get into that,” Southall said.

The Lens was unable to reach Washington to comment for this story.

The Central City charter school has had a host of financial problems this year.

Last month, The Lens reported the school had improperly withheld employees’ retirement contributions for weeks, sometimes months, before transferring them to their investment accounts. That may have reduced their investment gains, and it could break federal tax rules.

At a recent Orleans Parish School Board meeting, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said Harney may not seek renewal of its charter this fall.

In June 2017, the Recovery School District notified Harney that auditors had flagged contracts between the school and a firm owned by Washington. The RSD reported it to the ethics board.

Washington was formally accused of violating state ethics law in October.

He’s accused of breaking two laws. One prevents public servants from bidding on or entering into a contract with the agency where they work. The other bars public employees from receiving anything of economic value for work that overlaps with their job.

Washington was paid $22,000 in 2014, $25,500 in 2015 and $7,000 in 2016, according to the charges.

Harney’s board also approved a $25,000 contract with Washington and consultant Rhonda Clarke to expand the school, according to school board minutes. But that contract isn’t part of the ethics case.

Harney moved under the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board last summer, and school district employees immediately started asking questions.

In January, auditors again flagged problems with Harney’s financial management, including incomplete records regarding purchases. They raised concerns about the school’s one-man finance department.

Harney received another warning for its finances.

The Lens asked to see some of the school’s financial records after that audit. It took more than four months for Harney to provide them; they’re supposed to be turned over within a few days.

Credit card statements showed Southall had spent $1,514 at restaurants in New Orleans and Baton Rouge over six months in 2016. That included several trips to Houston’s on St. Charles Avenue, where the Cajun redfish with rock shrimp and lemon butter sauce was a frequent purchase.

According to payroll records, employees’ retirement contributions had been withheld from their paychecks in October, November and December, but they weren’t deposited until mid-February — after we inquired about them.

Two days after The Lens reported on the tardy transfers, the Orleans Parish school district requested a trove of financial records from the school.

The district confirmed our reporting at a recent school board meeting.

Washington’s last day was June 30. Southall said the school has an interim CFO and is seeking a replacement.

A status conference for Washington’s ethics case is set for Sept. 21. These cases can take a long time; the ethics board recently ruled last week in a nepotism case that started in 2014.

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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.