Former Aspira principal alleged misuse of federal funds

A former charter school principal alleged in a lawsuit, since withdrawn, that Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania misused $1.2 million in federal funds meant for laptops, after-school programs, and employee bonuses, and falsified reports about how the money was spent.

Renato Lajara, who was principal of John B. Stetson Charter School in Kensington from September 2010 until the summer of 2015, sued the charter school operator, its top officials, and related entities in federal court in 2014.

The complaint, only recently unsealed, charged that since 2010, Aspira had made "repeated false representations" to the U.S. and state Departments of Education about how federal grants were used "in an effort to defraud the United States of taxpayer dollars, under the guise of providing quality education to some of the nation's neediest children."

Lajara filed the suit under seal as a whistle-blower action in the hope that the federal government would join in the complaint. When the government declined to join the suit, Lajara ceased his efforts, and the suit was dismissed Sept. 30.

Kevin Feeley, an Aspira spokesman, denied the allegations in Lajara's suit.

"Aspira has been asked to respond to allegations in a lawsuit filed more than two years ago that the federal government has refused to pursue," he said in a statement. "Our response is this simple: The allegations are false. Independent audits conducted for Aspira show no evidence - none - that supports Mr. Lajara's claims, and in fact, Aspira and the schools consistently have received clean audits with NO questioned costs."

Feeley said the suit was "another politically motivated attempt by the opponents to attack Aspira's reputation" while the School Reform Commission is considering charter renewals for Stetson and Olney High School.

Stetson was a struggling district middle school that the SRC turned over to Aspira to operate as a charter in 2011.

Aspira, a nonprofit that focuses on Latino youth and education, has been fighting to retain control of both schools for months. The district's charter office has recommended that the SRC not renew the agreements because the schools are entangled in a web of financial transactions with Aspira and have not achieved the academic improvements the organization promised.

Lajara's complaint said that while he was principal of Stetson, federal funds were misused, including to pay off Aspira's debt on other properties. Aspira has five charter schools.

He said the U.S. Department of Education awarded Aspira a grant totaling nearly $400,000 over two years for classroom furniture and technology at Stetson. Aspira said it would use $230,000 to buy four mobile laptop labs in 2010-11 and nine the next year..

Lajara said that no laptops were purchased while he was principal and that the only computers at Stetson were donated refurbished ones.

At the end of 2011-12, Lajara said he asked Aspira CEO Alfredo Calderon about the missing laptops and was told that due to budget cuts, Aspira did not have the money.

The suit said Lajara repeatedly raised concerns with Calderon, Aspira's chief finance officer, and board members.

According to the suit, Aspira reported to the government that the laptops were purchased for Stetson as well as a walk-in refrigerator-freezer, which Lajara said Stetson never received.

He also alleged that despite Aspira's reports to the government, federal grants were not used for after-school, Saturday, and summer school programs at Stetson or to provide incentive bonuses for him or his assistant principal.

Lajara was still Stetson's principal when he filed his suit under the federal False Claims Act.

The law is designed to help the federal government recover misspent funds. Citizens who file suits can receive a percentage of funds the government recovers.

The cases are sealed while the Justice Department decides whether to become involved.

The department decided not to join Lahara's suit in the fall. The complaint was then unsealed.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the department's decision.

Experts on false-claim law said the Justice Department gets involved in only 17 percent to 20 percent of the 700 such cases filed each year.

Those who file false-claim suits can pursue them on their own. But without the government, Lajara elected to drop his.

"I decided to move on and just let it go," he said Friday.

The district's charter office has not referred to Lajara's suit, and the case has not been mentioned at any SRC meetings.

The order dismissing Lajara's case allows it to be reopened.