Former D.C. charter schools chief Brenda Belton yesterday admitted stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the most egregious case of public corruption in city schools since teacher union leaders were caught nearly five years ago in a massive embezzlement scheme.
Under a plea agreement, Belton, 61, former executive director of the Office of Charter School Oversight, pleaded guilty in federal court in the District to using shell companies to steal nearly $400,000 for herself and rigging no-bid contracts worth $444,000 to benefit her family and friends.
U.S. Attorney for the District Jeffrey A. Taylor said Belton committed a “shocking and disturbing abuse of her official position.”
Hired in 2003 at a salary of $80,000, Belton could use her position to oversee charter schools and to recommend whether the D.C. school board should approve or deny charter school applications.
One school, the Young America Works Public Charter School on Chillum Place in Northeast, paid Belton $3,000 during the summer of 2003. In addition, the school’s founder and executive director, identified in charging documents as “B.W.,” a longtime Belton friend, paid Belton $9,660.
Identified as the executive director for the school on a 2005 tax return, Brenda Williams opened the school after the city school board approved Young America’s charter school application in January 2004.
Prosecutors say that no one else has been charged but that the investigation remains active.
The plea agreement means Belton will cooperate with authorities in the investigation.
Belton responded “Yes sir” when U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina asked whether she was sure that she wanted to plead guilty to two counts of theft and two counts of tax evasion.
The theft counts and one of the tax-evasion charges each carry up to 10 years in prison; the remaining tax charge carries up to five years.
As part of the plea, Belton yesterday agreed to pay $383,000 in restitution.
Though Judge Urbina can determine the prison term, sentencing guidelines show Belton could receive anywhere from 17 to 37 months in prison.
Months after Belton’s hiring, she oversaw the search for a consulting company to help her office monitor charter school performance.
Five firms applied for the five-year monitoring contract, including Equal Access Inc., which was founded by a group that included Miss Williams, prosecutors say.
Belton, who oversaw the contract selection panel, picked Equal Access, even though the company had never won a contract before or generated any revenue.
Belton also took kickbacks from people to whom she gave no-bid jobs.
“Belton unilaterally hired, without posting or requesting bids, several friends and family members as consultants” for the Office of Charter School Oversight, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy G. Lynch wrote in recent court filings.
One Belton associate received $41,000 for “consulting work.” A second-cousin received $15,000. And Belton’s maid of honor and the godmother of her daughter found a job as a “charter-school liaison,” receiving more than $70,000 for a few months’ work.
Belton used a shell company called Equal Access for Education to submit phony invoices and double bill the District for more than $200,000. Equal Access was based at a home on Underwood Place in Northwest that was owned by Belton’s daughter.
Authorities also said Belton did not pay $95,568 in federal taxes and $28,705 in D.C. taxes in connection to the embezzlement scheme.
Belton’s case comes a year after the final defendants in the Washington Teachers Union scandal were sent to federal prison for taking part in a scheme that embezzled more than $4 million in teacher pension dues.
In that case, the highest-ranking official, former union president Barbara Bullock pleaded guilty first and testified against lower-ranking officials. As a result, she received a more lenient prison term.