Fired employee files whistle-blower suit against Aspira, says federal probe underway

3 x 2 Stetson high school Aspira
ASPIRA's John B. Stetson High School in Kensington.

A former accounts payable coordinator at Aspira has filed a federal whistle-blower suit that claims she was wrongfully fired by the charter school operator after refusing to manipulate bookkeeping entries.

Juanita Way also alleges that Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania  fired her in retaliation for talking to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in an investigation into Aspira’s financial practices, including a plan to use charter school funds to pay medical insurance premiums for people who were not school employees.

The suit, which was posted on the federal court website Wednesday, was first reported by  Fox 29.

In a statement Thursday, Aspira called the allegations “outrageous and completely false,” and said it was “prepared to vigorously defend itself against these frivolous claims in court, and we expect to be fully vindicated.”

Aspira said that Way “was terminated for cause” and that the organization’s decision to fight her claim for unemployment “resulted in the denial of unemployment compensation.”

The statement also said:  “As for allegations of financial improprieties, as we have said before, Aspira schools are audited annually by an independent accounting firm, and all of these audits – without exception – have resulted in ‘clean’ audit opinions.”

The organization said the allegations in Way’s suit were “simply the latest in a continuing effort” by Aspira’s  opponents to discredit it and “its reputation as a leader in the education of children throughout Philadelphia’s Latino community.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said she could not confirm or deny whether the federal government was investigating Aspira.

Three former Aspira charter school employees have said they also had been interviewed by federal agents in connection with an investigation into Aspira’s operations. All three declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.

Aspira, a nonprofit based in Hunting Park, focuses on Latino youth and education. It operates four charter schools in Philadelphia:  Olney High and John B. Stetson in Kensington, Eugenio Maria De Hostos in Olney, and  Antonia Pantoja in North Philadelphia. The organization also operates the statewide Aspira Bilingual Cyber, based in Olney.

 In her suit, Way said she was hired by Aspira in May 2011 and wrongfully terminated on Aug. 26, 2016, accused of mishandling two accounts. The complaint called that accusation “pretense and subterfuge” and says Way was fired for refusing “to engage in financial fraud [and] for providing information to law enforcement.”

Way said that she was contacted by federal investigators in December 2015 and that Aspira’s  management was aware she met with the FBI.

According to the suit, Aspira was trying to take over two California schools in spring 2016 but needed bank loans to complete the deal. Officials  asked Way to manipulate bookkeeping entries to make it appear that Aspira’s finances were better than they were. When Way refused, she faced “increasing criticism and pressure,” the suit said.

Benjamin Friedman, Way’s lawyer, described her as “a lovely woman who took her job very seriously.” He said Aspira not only fired Way but also “fabricated a nasty scenario, accusing her of mismanaging accounts. She is a very precise and accurate woman, and the idea that she would suddenly screw up seemed very mean-spirited.”

Way’s suit and the revelation of a federal investigation are the latest problems to face Aspira. Among other things, Pennsylvania Auditor General  Eugene DePasquale announced last week that his office would begin an audit of the five charter schools operated by Aspira because of news reports that the organization had paid a former administrator $350,000 to settle a sexual-harassment complaint and lawsuit she had filed against Aspira president and CEO Alfredo Calderon.

In addition, concerns about finances and management -- and Aspira's requests for time to resolve them -- have prompted the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to repeatedly delay voting on new operating agreements for Olney and Stetson.

Both are once-troubled district schools that the SRC turned over to Aspira in 2010 and 2011 to convert to charter schools and overhaul their academics. The district’s charter office has said the two schools are entangled in a web of financial transactions, including payments and loans to Aspira, to each other, and to Aspira-related businesses.

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