- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - A group of parents filed an ethics complaint Thursday against District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson after The Associated Press reported that she asked city contractors for money to support a gala honoring teachers.

In a letter to the city’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, the group requested a formal investigation of whether Henderson’s actions corrupted the contracting process. The board has the authority to punish city officials for ethics violations.

Henderson asked for a $100,000 contribution from the city’s troubled food-service contractor to a gala at the Kennedy Center honoring teachers, according to emails obtained by The AP in a Freedom of Information Act request. She made the request in 2013, shortly after the contractor, Chartwells, was accused in a whistleblower lawsuit of cheating the city out of millions of dollars through price-gouging and fraud. Chartwells ultimately paid $19 million to settle the lawsuit, which included allegations that the company served spoiled food to city schoolchildren and deliberately stockpiled food and allowed it to rot.

After Henderson’s request, Chartwells ultimately made two $25,000 contributions to the gala, which honors the teachers who do the best on the school system’s performance evaluations. A spokeswoman for Henderson confirmed to AP that the chancellor also requested contributions to the gala from other school system contractors, including Sodexo, which is bidding on the new food-service contract.

City ethics rules generally prohibit city employees from soliciting money, including charitable contributions, from companies that do business with the city. The rules are meant to prevent the appearance of “pay to play” politics in which contractors get preferential treatment in exchange for gifts or campaign contributions.

The D.C. Council has established exceptions for fundraising by the chancellor, but they don’t specifically address contributions to the D.C. Public Education Fund, the nonprofit that puts on the $700,000 gala.

Henderson, who is regarded as a leader in the national education-reform movement, defended the practice.

“D.C. Public Schools takes the integrity of the contracting process very seriously,” schools spokeswoman Anna Gregory said in a statement. “DCPS and Chancellor Henderson have acted lawfully and in good faith at all times. Should any investigation into the procurement process occur, we will fully cooperate.”

The request for an investigation was made by the D.C. School Food Project, a group of parents and other residents who advocate for healthy food in city schools, particularly for poor students who rely on free or reduced-price school meals for nutrition.

“We request an official investigation into any money that has been exchanged between any employee or office of DCPS and any current, past, and potential vendors,” the group wrote to the ethics board. “Given the potential for irregularities in the current procurement process, should any ethics violations be uncovered, we request an investigation into any activities that may have been undertaken to favor any specific vendor.”

Despite the settlement, the D.C. Council allowed Chartwells to continue serving food in city schools this year after school officials argued they didn’t have enough time to select a new vendor. The school system is in the process of evaluating bids for next school year and said a winner would be announced in March, but no vendor has been selected. Gregory said Thursday that the winning bidder would be announced within a week.

Because the request to the ethics board does not come from a government entity, it does not automatically trigger a formal investigation. However, ethics board staff will conduct a preliminary inquiry and present their findings to the board, usually within 120 days.

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/ben-nuckols.

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