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AG: No criminal conduct by Lehighton School District

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office recently announced it found no criminal wrongdoing by former Lehighton Area School District administrators and board members in its dealings with the National Education Foundation over five years ago.

Lehighton’s current board members voted in October to send a letter to the Carbon County District Attorney’s office in October requesting an investigation after the district spent more than $3 million for what was supposed to be a “no-cost” contract to create Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math academies at its three schools around 2016.

Carbon County District Attorney Michael Greek said he consulted with local law enforcement agencies having primary investigative jurisdiction of the matter and determined that the appropriate action would be a referral to the Office of Attorney General Criminal Law Division, Public Corruption Section, to investigate and determine if criminal charges were warranted in order to bring closure to an issue of great contention and division among members of the school board.

The attorney general’s office officially closed the matter on Jan. 10.

“After investigating this matter, we have determined there is insufficient evidence of any criminal conduct,” Brian Zarallo, chief deputy attorney general with the public corruption section, said regarding the matter.

The contract with NEF was the subject of a state auditor general’s report in 2020, chastising the district for getting nothing in return for its money. Along with its submission to the district attorney, the district listed six items of concern.

“The district paid stipends to its employees, however the work that was to performed for these stipends was to the benefit of NEF and not the district,” one of the items read.

Current Lehighton director Barbara Bowes said she voted to request the district attorney review the matter to bring closure to the situation.

“A lot of community members have issues with what happened with NEF,” Bowes said. “Some are more vocal than others. There are a number of things that could very well be considered criminal, but I don’t know because I’m not the state police. A proper investigation would put it to bed for good.”

The program

In 2014, the district applied for the Qualified Zone Academy Bond program from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and was approved for $8.5 million to support construction of a new elementary school and renovations to its middle and high schools. The district applied for another QZAB in 2016 and was approved for $6.8 million. To comply with the requirements of the QZAB program, the district partnered with NEF, which pledged to give it the required 10% of the bond proceeds as an in-kind donation.

Lehighton entered into additional agreements with the private company in conjunction with the QZABs. District officials and board members didn’t realize these agreements cost the district more than $3 million, the auditor general’s report stated. The agreements stipulated that the private company would assist the district in setting up STEM programs and provide the district with services, stipends and rewards.

“The district failed to monitor the agreements,” the 2020 auditor general’s report states, “to ensure that it received goods and services in accordance with the agreements. With regard to the 2016 agreement for which it paid $1.36 million, the district did not receive any of the agreed upon services, stipends, rewards, etc.”

No criminal findings

Greek said he was aware that the audit noted a violation of the Public School Code wherein the NEF agreements were never approved by a majority vote of the school board members at a public meeting.

That statute, he said, provides that a failure to comply with those requirements renders the agreements void or unenforceable but does not provide for any criminal penalty.

“I would also note that the audit report did not include this office or the Office of the Attorney General as a stakeholder on the report nor was there a referral to either office requesting a criminal investigation as would be the case if criminal violations were suspected by the auditor general,” Greek said.