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Pittsburgh charter school eyed by FBI, state official says

| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 2:48 p.m.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said on Monday that he referred questionable spending practices at a Downtown charter school to the FBI because a state audit this year uncovered what appeared to be Pennsylvania taxpayer money going toward building a school in Ohio.

DePasquale said his office found “potentially criminal” spending practices at Urban Pathways during a routine audit in the spring. He said money was unaccounted for at the same time the school was building a facility in Youngstown. The audit found that the spouse of at least one board member was getting a free cell phone from the school.

“We know (the FBI) has it. We know they're taking it seriously,” said DePasquale, adding that he referred the results to the FBI in the spring. “The concern we had was Pennsylvania tax dollars going towards building a school in Ohio.”

Linda Clautti, CEO of the school, did not return a call for comment, but the school released a statement:

“Urban Pathways Charter Schools continue to make the education and needs of their students their top priority. Issues brought up by the media have been referred to the school's respective boards and legal counsel.”

A spokeswoman for the FBI Pittsburgh office did not return a call.

Charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded, are audited about every three years by the auditor general.

The school's board of trustees is divided into a K-5 board and a 6-12 board. Peggy Fayfich, identified by the school's website as president of the K-5 board, did not return a call for comment. Linwood Harris, identified as president of the 6-12 board, could not be reached.

DePasquale said the audit uncovered additional expenses, including a staff trip to posh Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County and meals at pricey restaurants in Pittsburgh.

DePasquale said the meals and retreats could be legitimate expenses, but paying for the cellphone of a board member's spouse is not permitted.

“The retreat at Nemacolin, I think it's a waste of taxpayer money, but they're not the first entity to go on a retreat,” DePasquale said.

Chartered in 1998, Urban Pathways is on Penn Avenue and has more than 620 students from Allegheny County school districts.

In Harrisburg, a debate among lawmakers is intensifying over longstanding complaints that charter schools are overpaid by taxpayers and need strengthened ethics and financial disclosure laws.

The audit arises at a time when charter schools are in the news for alleged misuse of taxpayer money. Federal authorities indicted Nick Trombetta, founder of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland, and accused him of stealing $1 million from the charter through a network of shell companies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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