New developments in the court battle between the State of Ohio and former online chart school ECOT suggest the state’s top law enforcement official may have trouble effectively pursuing the case. Last month, Attorney General Mike DeWine filed a lawsuit against ECOT founder William Lager and other ECOT officials seeking to recover tens of millions in overpayments for students who did not participate in coursework. At the time, DeWine was criticized for waiting until just before an election to go after ECOT, when questions had been raised about the school for years.
Two weeks later, two school districts — Dayton and Logan Hocking Schools asked a court to intervene in the lawsuit, claiming it should be school districts, and not Attorney General DeWine who should seek repayment from Lager. (See: “DeWine Opposes Districts’ Intervention In Case Against ECOT Founder) They argue that because DeWine– currently running for Governor–and his running mate, Jon Husted, jointly collected tens thousands of dollars in political contribution from Lager and associates, they woud not be effective in pursuing repayment from their former contributor.
As the school districts argued, “There is no question that the AG is a friend of theses institutions … (and) is not an adequate representative of the School Districts’ interests.”
In response to the lawsuit, DeWine argued that he, and not the school districts, could lead the case against Bill Lager, denying any conflict of interest.
But last week, the schools’ argument that DeWine’s past relationship with Lager make him less likely to effectively pursue the case was unexpectedly bolstered by Lager himself.
Lager, the defendant in the lawsuit, argued in an October 9 court filing that he agreed with DeWine, stating a preference to go up against the Attorney General in court: “Leaving aside arguments dealing with the ability of the Ohio Attorney General to protect constituent interests and the conflict of interest issues … [Mr. Lager and his companies] incorporate and rely on the balance of the arguments advanced by the Ohio Attorney General,” in effect agreeing that Mr. DeWine should handle the case.
This week, Innovation Ohio sent a memo to every school district leader requesting that they take immediate action to protect their taxpayers and kids because it was clear that Lager felt more comfortable facing DeWine in court than the districts who had been hurt financially. (See “…Groups Want More Districts In ECOT Suit”)
On Tuesday, the school districts made another filing arguing that Lager’s filing simply proved their point: Mike DeWine was not best positioned to fight for a recovery from Lager. As the districts put it, “It appears that even some of the Defendants do not believe the AG will be as zealous an advocate for the School Districts as the Districts will be for themselves. “
The filing further reveals that DeWine hasn’t yet revoked any educator licenses related to ECOT, as has been done in prior cases of charter school wrongdoing. As the suit puts it: “If the AG was truly out to help the School Districts, he would already be in the process of revoking professional licenses of educators associated with ECOT’s misappropriations. Despite the fact that ECOT’s overbilling totaled more than $79,640,000 and that it has been closed since January 18, 2018, not a single ECOT-related educator license is the subject of revocation proceedings.”
The school districts argue that “the AG’s professed zeal on behalf of public schools in this state for misappropriations of the School Districts’ monies to ECOT is not genuine.”
The ECOT scandal–at $189 million, easily the state’s largest ever involving taxpayer dollars–is far from resolved. Innovation Ohio strongly urges school districts to take note and be mindful of the potential conflicts inherent in the relationship between DeWine and Lager. It appears more clear every day that it’s going to be up to districts to lead the fight to get their kids’ money back from Lager.