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Oklahoma AG's Office takes reins in Epic Charter Schools investigation

Oklahoma AG's Office takes reins in Epic Charter Schools investigation

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Epic investigators through AG's office

Senior Deputy Attorney General Joy Thorp (right) will serve as the chief liaison from the Oklahoma AG’s Office to work with Melissa McLawhorn Houston, appointed special counsel in the office’s review the state auditor and inspector’s audit of Epic Charter Schools.

The state attorney general has appointed special counsel to take over a review of Epic Charter Schools after the results of an investigative audit prompted Oklahoma’s superintendent of schools to vow to recoup millions in taxpayer dollars.

Attorney General Mike Hunter said Monday in a news release that Melissa McLawhorn Houston will serve as special counsel in the matter, and that he has recused himself and many in his office from further review of the audit due to their involvement in several Epic-related investigations and litigation. The office also serves as counsel to the Virtual Charter School Board, which on Tuesday could vote to terminate the contract with Epic.

Also according to the release, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has agreed to turn over control of examining the audit and any decisions on legal action to the Attorney General’s Office.

A spokesman with the Attorney General’s Office confirmed that the move means that the AG’s office, not Prater, will ultimately decide any criminal charges in the matter.

Both Prater’s and Hunter’s offices have commented previously about potential conflicts in the ongoing investigation. Hunter has been recipient of political campaign donations by Epic’s founders and other school backers. And Prater is married to a top executive at one of Epic’s sponsors.

Prater, reached for comment Monday, said he asked the attorney general to include in the release the news about his turning over control “because I want to assure everyone that I am completely out of any decision-making related to the investigation or litigation.”

Houston, previously chief of staff for the Attorney General’s Office under then-AG Scott Pruitt, has also served as Oklahoma labor commissioner and secretary for education and workforce development. She is the founder and principal of 929 Strategies, a government affairs consulting firm.

Hunter said: “With assistance and resources provided from my office, she will conduct an extensive review of the auditor’s findings and make recommendations based on the rule of law. I appreciate her willingness to step up and help us in this vital role.”

Serving as Houston’s chief liaison will be Senior Deputy Attorney General Joy Thorp, Hunter said. Thorp’s criminal justice unit team handles cold cases, murders and public corruption. She also manages the Tulsa office and oversees the state’s multicounty grand jury.

“There has been much scrutiny and inquiry surrounding Epic Charter Schools for many years,” Houston said. “Oklahomans deserve a fair and unbiased look at the findings, and that is exactly what I am prepared to give them.”

Related video: State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister talks with the Tulsa World's Andrea Eger

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister talks with Tulsa World's Andrea Eger

Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation

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