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Ohio Auditor Criticized For Handling Of Whistleblower Claims Against ECOT

ECOT founder Bill Lager speaks to the crowd of students, parents and teachers earlier this year.
Karen Kasler
Ohio Public Radio
ECOT founder Bill Lager speaks to the crowd of students, parents and teachers.

A Democratic candidate for Ohio Attorney General candidate said Tuesday that his Republican opponent, Auditor Dave Yost, should have immediately referred to authorities a whistleblower's allegations that ECOT intentionally inflated attendance figures.

Steven Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney in Cleveland, made his comments in response to an Associated Press report that an ex-employee of the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the state's largest online charter school, shared his claims of misconduct inside the school with the Ohio Department of Education and Yost's office last year.

“It is a massive fraud case and it should immediately have been taken out of the audit queue and sent over to criminal investigators who can handle it," Dettelbach said. "And I am worried that evidence, witnesses and money has dissipated and disappeared in this time.”

Marion Little, an attorney for the ECOT board, told the AP he was unaware of the man's claims or that he had been interviewed.

In a teleconference with reporters Tuesday, Dettelbach said critical evidence in a potential criminal case against ECOT may have been lost and important witnesses dispersed in the months since the whistleblower first approach Yost's office.

"When a credible whistleblower comes forward with inside information that there was intentional fraud that is going on, you do not sit on that for a year," Dettelbach said. "You do not put it into some process where it marinates as part of a routine audit; it's not something that comes out in a report months and months later. You pick up the phone immediately, and you refer it to an independent criminal investigation agency."

Auditor's Office spokesperson Ben Marrison said the whistleblower's information was considered for an ECOT financial audit that has not yet been released.

Dettelbach called on Yost to recuse himself from the ECOT review going forward because he has taken ECOT-tied political donations — a demand Yost's office called an ungrounded "political stunt."

"This office has aggressively audited ECOT's claims for funding, and these allegations were thoroughly investigated as well," the office said in a statement.

His office said Yost asked ECOT to restate its financial statements when the school suspended its operations in January and had a receiver appointed. The office said it received the school's updated financial statements on Tuesday and would release its audit May 1.

The former employee, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions for speaking out, first raised his concerns with the Education Department in an Aug. 3 email. Education regulators didn't meet with him until December.

The Education Department said its interview of the whistleblower came too late for its 2016-2017 attendance audit, but that his allegations would be considered for the 2017-2018 audit that will take place this summer.

In an AP interview, the whistleblower said that before he left the school last July he was privy to meetings where officials ordered staff to use new software to manipulate student data to reach desired outcomes.

The Education Department previously found that the school significantly over-reported its number of full-time-equivalent students and owed the state $60 million for the 2015-2016 school year. Another $19 million penalty was assessed for 2016-2017.

As it grappled with a new Education Department rule requiring schools to report learning hours rather than enrollment, the school installed software on school computers to track student learning in the new way the state required.

An ECOT lawsuit challenging the legality of the rule requiring learning-hour tracking is pending before the Ohio Supreme Court.