Auditor’s handling of whistleblower’s claims is criticized


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s opponent in the state attorney general’s race said Tuesday that Yost should immediately have referred to authorities a whistleblower’s allegations that the state’s then-largest online charter school intentionally inflated attendance figures.

The Republican Yost’s office called Democrat Steven Dettelbach’s call for Yost to recuse himself from reviewing the former Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow a “political stunt.” It said the former ECOT employee’s claims of misconduct by the school were swiftly investigated — though results of that inquiry have not yet been released.

The Associated Press reported Monday that the individual first shared claims of misconduct at the now-shuttered e-school with the Ohio Department of Education in August.

“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,” said Dettelbach, a former U.S. Attorney in Cleveland. “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.”

Yost spokesman Ben Marrison said the whistleblower’s information was considered for an ECOT financial audit that has not yet been released.

The office said Tuesday it got ECOT’s final paperwork Tuesday and planned to release the report May 1. Marrison said the auditor’s Public Integrity Assurance Team, which has produced more than 150 criminal convictions since 2011, met with the informant three times.

“This office has aggressively audited ECOT’s claims for funding, and these allegations were thoroughly investigated as well,” Yost’s office said in a statement.

In an AP interview, the former employee, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions for speaking out, 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.

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.

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 approached Yost’s office. He questioned Yost’s ability to independently review a school that has given him campaign contributions and honors.

The whistleblower first raised his concerns with the state Education Department in an Aug. 3 email. Education regulators didn’t meet with him until December. The department has said, although that interview came too late for its 2016-2017 attendance audit, his claims will be considered for the 2017-2018 attendance audit that kicks off this summer.

Additional communications between the whistleblower and the Education Department were released Tuesday by Stephanie Dodd, a state school board member and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate. One email obtained by Dodd described “the real manipulation” perpetrated by the school as “processing of the raw data and building it into academic records for the purposes of funding claims.”

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.

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

By Julie Carr Smyth

Associated Press

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