New revelations and allegations about the Epic Charter Schools founders from Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd ought to light a fire under lawmakers and law enforcement.
At a meeting of the Republican Women's Club of Tulsa County on Tuesday, Byrd detailed her investigative audit of the public virtual charter school released last year. It uncovered millions in excessive administrative spending and questionable handling of $145 million in taxpayer funds.
Since then, the founders — Ben Harris and David Chaney — have faced little to no consequence. A demand from Oklahoma State Board of Education to repay $11.2 million has gone ignored.
Byrd made clear to the crowd that Harris, Chaney and their chief financial officer, Josh Brock, have not been exonerated. She said the term of the Oklahoma multicounty grad jury looking into possible charges expired "before the case was finished," according to reporter Andrea Eger.
"This is far from over. The criminality of this cannot be ignored. There will be charges," Byrd said.
Most outrageous is that inaction by legislators and law enforcement for the past 13 months left open the possibility for Harris and Chaney to pocket another $80 million for this fiscal year.
Specifics in audits are usually boring, but the audience audibly gasped when Byrd explained new accusations. Those included routinely falsified invoices and monthly charges of $600,000 for land and $37,000 for food service for students learning at home.
Byrd took the founders to court to compel the release of records showing they dipped into the $145 million in tax money tucked away in private company accounts. They used personal credit cards to make millions in purchases for students out of those accounts.
The founders were generous political donors before the audit and stepped up their giving after its release. At least one incumbent lawmaker was ousted in part due to the founders' donations to a challenger. Byrd spent a year staving off attacks on her staff for the audit work.
Byrd said their political influencing comes through campaign contributions, political action committees, dark money PACs, lobbying and even philanthropic groups. She called the money flow "beyond measurement."
That it seems to have worked so far is appalling. We are frustrated that the Epic founders are not being held to the same standard of every other public official and school administrator.
State Republican leadership pivoted away from the Epic founders to call for an audit of the Oklahoma State Education Department, which is led by Joy Hofmeister who recently changed her political party to challenge Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Byrd noted the education audit stemmed from the one on Epic. But we are concerned about the conflation of those, particularly considering the political backdrop.
For now, leaders need to focus on closing the circle on the allegations against the Epic founders, and legislators continue leveling the field between virtual charter and traditional public districts.