Charter school pioneer L. Lawrence Riccio is known internationally as an influential voice for youths with disabilities, an innovator in special education and the arts. He’s authored books, drives a Porsche, dines in style and travels abroad frequently.
But his vaunted standing was brought low by claims of malfeasance after he retired in June from the nonprofit group and arts-based charter school he headed in Washington, D.C., according to public records, educators and school board officials who have been questioned by the FBI and the District of Columbia’s office of inspector general.
An independent auditor’s report said that in the fall of 2008, the U.S. attorney’s office issued a subpoena for school financial records related to Mr. Riccio’s “alleged criminal activities.” The report said the school he founded in 1998 — the School for Arts in Learning (SAIL) — was cooperating with the investigation.
A review by The Washington Times of records and interviews of more than a dozen people familiar with the investigation has exposed cracks in the fiscal oversight of the District’s 57 public charter schools in a city known as the vanguard of the nation’s charter school movement but with a history of unaccountability and shoddy oversight.
Questions also have surfaced over Mr. Riccio’s suspected use of a school credit card for travel, restaurants, liquor, flowers and lingerie.
D.C. Public Charter School Board officials confirmed that the investigation is ongoing.
At least one other former charter school director also is under investigation by the inspector general’s office, said Jeremy Williams, the charter school board’s director of business oversight. Three schools closed last year owing to financial mismanagement, said Mr. Williams, who was among several officials who said problems at SAIL went unchallenged for years.
“It was sloppy, to say the least,” he said.
A 2007 memo by a financial consultant to SAIL’s former chief financial officer, obtained by The Times, describes an accounting department in disarray, an “alarming” lack of control over cash, the use of maxed-out credit cards to pay school bills, and a grants-management system “neither coherent nor applicable” to grant files.
An outside auditor’s report for the year ending June 30, 2008, said SAIL and related entities established by Mr. Riccio were unable to document more than $200,000 in expenditures. Mr. Riccio retired a year later under pressure from the charter board, which was threatening to revoke SAIL’s charter, Mr. Williams said.
By then, SAIL had a budget deficit of $323,000, was failing to meet standards for fiscal management and had experienced four years of poor math and reading scores.
“My main concern is that we are not, as a school, under any investigation,” Chief Executive Officer Richard Offner told The Times. “Have we complied with an investigation? Yes. Beyond that, I’m not able to say.”
Mr. Offner, a former SAIL executive committee member and a former board chairman of Washington Very Special Arts (WVSA), a related nonprofit group that Mr. Riccio co-founded 30 years ago, agreed to a second interview but later canceled and declined to comment further. SAIL has retained an attorney, Amy Jackson, and she declined to comment.
Mr. Riccio did not return numerous calls.