COLUMBUS (AP) – A group of U.S. charter schools in Ohio started by the followers of a reclusive Muslim cleric engaged in improper business relationships, a lawyer for the Turkish government alleges in a complaint filed Tuesday seeking a state investigation.
Attorney Robert Amsterdam also asserts that the schools have ties to the cleric, Fethullah Gulen. The schools previously have denied direct ties to Gulen, who lives as a recluse in eastern Pennsylvania.
The cleric is a political foe of Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and Erdogan’s government has accused Gulen of being the mastermind of a July 15 coup attempt.
Here’s a look at the Ohio allegations:
NETWORK OF LINKED BUSINESSES
Amsterdam’s 18-page complaint alleges a network of 17 Ohio charter schools managed by Chicago-based Concept Schools engaged in improper relationships with their management company and landlord, with their business subsidiaries and with each other.
The schools operate in Ohio as Horizon Science Academies and Noble Academies.
Specifically, the complaint says Concept has collected $19 million in excessive profits in Ohio through a real estate practice Amsterdam calls “closed-loop leasing.”
“They do it by being on both sides – and sometimes three sides – of a transaction,” he said.
Public documents cited in the complaint show a company called Breeze Inc. acquiring properties for Concept, and a nonprofit called New Plan Learning, which acts as an umbrella group for Breeze and several other affiliated subsidiaries, then buys, renovates, leases and sometimes sells the properties.
WHERE THE MONEY’S MADE
Leases and rental agreements the firm unearthed are often written to be non-cancellable, to include 2 percent to 4 percent escalation clauses and to make the taxpayer-funded charter school responsible for renovation and maintenance of the properties, Amsterdam said.
Lease payments have in some cases been doubled, tripled or quadrupled, he said, and extended to 30 years.
Members of the charter schools’ boards who approve such agreements are often tied to one or more of the companies, the complaint alleges.
COMPANY CHALLENGES REPORT
Concept Schools spokesman Mark Weaver said the complaint contains “numerous false allegations.” He did not specify what about the report was false.
Weaver said ProgressOhio, the liberal policy group that hosted Amsterdam’s news conference, is affiliated with teachers unions whose earlier allegations against the schools couldn’t be substantiated.
“The last time this group made such allegations about Concept Schools, state education officials and the Auditor of State’s office found them to be incorrect and false. We expect the same will occur with these latest allegations,” he said. “Sadly, these false allegations undermine the hard work and success of our students, many of whom already face serious challenges.”
ProgressOhio says state officials failed to adequately investigate the earlier claims.
ADDS TO EARLIER CHARGES
Amsterdam says “closed-loop leasing” revelations come on top of other allegations his firm and others have leveled against Gulen-affiliated schools elsewhere.
Concept Schools has consistently rejected the charges, which include that the chain misuses the H1B work-visa process to employ large numbers of Turkish nationals at the schools who must return a portion of their paychecks to the Gulen movement and that it influences politicians into disregarding questionable actions by handing out free trips to Turkey.
Weaver called Amsterdam “a foreign agent.” Amsterdam said he’s from the Bronx in New York City.
An FBI investigation into some of the Ohio charter schools is ongoing.