What’s the best way to avoid a charter school scandal?
In Pennsylvania, apparently you bribe the Attorney General.
That may be why Students First PAC donated $50,000 to Josh Shapiro, a Democrat running for the position.
This political action committee is not to be confused with the infamous national group founded by Michelle Rhee. Students First PAC is a state organization that typically contributes to charter school friendly candidates.
And $50K is quite a chunk of change in a State Attorney General race – the office in charge of prosecuting charter schools for breaking the law.
Charter school scandals have been an almost weekly occurrence throughout the Commonwealth. Chester Community Charter School, the state’s largest brick-and-mortar organization, is under investigation for pocketing $1.2 million “in improper lease-reimbursement payments.” As Philadelphia public schools are being closed due to a miserly state budget, “nonprofit,” charter operator Aspira Inc. was caught using public money to boost its real estate holdings instead of using those funds to educate children. Nicholas Trombetta, the founder of Pennsylvania’s largest cyber charter, an institution that operates exclusively over the internet, “was charged with fraud, for funneling $8 million of the school’s funds into his personal companies and holdings.”
It’s easy to see how having the state Attorney General on your side would benefit an industry rife with fraud and malfeasance.
Shapiro, chair of the Montgomery Country Board of Commissioners, is the odds on favorite to succeed Kathleen Kane as the state’s highest ranking law enforcement officer.
He is running for the Democratic nomination against Northhampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, and Allegheny Country Attorney General Stephen Zappala.
Despite strong corporate education reform ties, Shapiro has been endorsed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the largest teachers union in the Commonwealth.
At a public debate earlier in March, challenger Morganelli called out Shapiro on the Students First PAC donation.
“Josh, you are really good at giving speeches but your resume doesn’t match your performance,” Morganelli said. “You have received $25,000 from Students First PAC, which is a charter school [organization], and you received it on March 4th 2015. That is a charter school advocate that is hurting our public schools. Josh gives a great speech here then takes $25,000 from Students First PAC, I think that’s wrong.”
Morganelli added in a prepared statement in Harrisburg, “It was later determined that Josh accepted an additional $25,000 from Students First PAC in 2012. Who knows how much more he may have received from them that has not yet surfaced.”
Shapiro has never publicly denied these allegations.
His response at the debate was that voters should judge him based on his record.
However, Shapiro’s campaign manager Joe Radosevich responded further.
“Josh’s record in support of public education is unmatched and he’s proud to stand with Pennsylvania teachers in this election,” he said. “Josh is the only candidate for Attorney General who will protect Pennsylvania teachers and stand up for the rights of each and every student to a ‘thorough and efficient’ education as guaranteed in our state constitution.”
Morganelli also took issue with PSEA for endorsing Shapiro over himself. He criticized the organization for a history of siding with candidates with whom high ranking leaders have a relationship regardless of their positions on eduction. He cited PSEA’s endorsement of Tom Corbett for Attorney General in 2008. Corbett won that election and went on 2 years later to become one of the worst Governor’s in state history whose “greatest” achievement was slashing almost $1 billion from our public schools.
PSEA’s endorsement of Shapiro is in the same line, Morganelli said.
“How can PSEA endorse a candidate who is in bed with the Charter school folks? This would be like someone being funded by both the NRA and CeaseFire [PA] – inconceivable!”
PSEA spokesman David Broderic compared Morganelli’s criticism to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“PSEA’s members decided to recommend Josh Shapiro, based on his support for our issues,” Broderic said. “That’s what happens in politics. Today’s Trump-like antics don’t do anything but devalue politics. It’s a shame he felt the need to do that.”
Shapiro is receiving tremendous flack for the donations. In private, he explained the matter further, according to a confidential source.
He said the money was actually donated by his friend Joel Greenberg, a hedge fund manager who has worked with Shapiro on county, Jewish and Israeli issues. Greenberg funneled the money through Students First PAC. He gave his own personal money to Students First PAC which, in turn, gave it to Shapiro.
Greenberg is infamous in his own right as one of the three Philadelphia investment bankers who founded Students First PAC. He is also on the board of the American Federation for Children, a national school choice group with mega wealthy far right backers including the Koch Brothers.
The explanation makes little sense. It is shameful that the PSEA hasn’t pushed Shapiro to either publicly explain his actions or give back the money. At very least, the union could retract its endorsement.
Morganelli is to be praised for bringing the matter to public attention. Unfortunately, he is plagued by his own political shortcomings.
In 2007, Morganelli joined State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe for a witch hunt against illegal immigrants.
Metcalfe, a Republican from Cranberry Township, is so far right, he makes Rick Santorum look like Bernie Sanders! He is infamous in state politics for flamboyant actions against homosexuals and immigrants.
Metcalfe wrote a report called “Invasion PA” claiming Commonwealth lives were at stake because of a perceived influx of illegal immigrants. It was laughed out of Harrisburg, but Morganelli supported it – at least at first.
“It’s not an illegal immigration issue, it’s a crime and national security issue,” said Morganelli, who claimed about 5,000 illegal aliens in Northampton County had been responsible for a disproportionate share of the crime.
Five of 10 rapes in Northampton County last year were committed by illegal immigrants, Morganelli said.
Pennsylvania taxpayers are picking up the tab for illegal aliens housed in county and state prisons, he said.
However, when the report was met with ridicule, Morganelli tried to distance himself from it.
He called it ”deficient.”
”The report was, in my view, poorly constructed,” the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review quoted Morganelli as saying. ”It was a compilation of opinions and inferences drawn from arrests that really did not support the conclusion that an ‘invasion’ is occurring in Pennsylvania.”
In addition to this catastrophic lapse in judgement, Morganelli is also a staunch advocate for the death penalty. Not exactly someone suited to state office.
Of the three Democrats running for the position, Zappala is clearly the best candidate. He has been a just Attorney General in Allegheny Country since 1998. For instance, he is in favor of treatment and prevention for drug abusers rather than incarceration.
The Republican candidates are John Rafferty, a state senator from Montgomery County, and Joe Peters, a Wyoming County resident who was a former police officer, federal prosecutor and spokesman for current Attorney General Kane.
Kane is not seeking re-election. The primary election is April 26.
The office has been plagued by scandal under Kane. She stormed into the position with immense political good will, the first Democrat and woman to be elected to the position since it became an elected office in 1980. She was a rising star likely to challenge Republican Pat Toomey for U.S. Senate. However, her star fell in August 2015. She was arrested and charged with multiple offenses, including two counts of felony perjury, and obstruction of justice. A month later the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania suspended Kane’s license to practice law, the first such occurrence for a Pennsylvania Attorney General. Since she was not removed from her position, she has continued to exercise her duties as with a suspended license by delegating legal responsibilities to her top advisers.
Pennsylvania needs an Attorney General free from controversy, and both Shaprio and Morganelli don’t fit the bill. We can’t let someone who accepts huge charter school donations take over regulating the industry.
And shame on PSEA for letting down the Commonwealth’s teachers, parents and children. Endorsements should be made based on what’s best for our schools not personal relationships.