Oklahoma grand jury now involved in Epic Charter Schools investigation
The state's multicounty grand jury has begun hearing testimony about Epic Charter Schools.
The grand jury's involvement was expected but still represents a significant step forward in the investigation into whether millions of dollars in taxpayer funds have been misused. It also comes at a time enrollment in virtual schools has skyrocketed because of the pandemic and made Epic the state's largest school district.
Epic officials have denied wrongdoing.
Grand jurors hear testimony one to three days a month in Oklahoma City at the state attorney general's office. Their sessions are closed to the public and their investigations can take months. At some point, they could be asked to decide if criminal charges are warranted. They then could issue indictments, starting a prosecution.
An agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation appeared Wednesday morning before the grand jury about Epic.
The OSBI in 2019 alleged in a request for a search warrant that Epic co-founders David Chaney and Ben Harris “devised a scheme to use their positions as public officers to unlawfully derive profits from state appropriated funds.”
After the allegations became public, Gov. Kevin Stitt and state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister called for the state auditor to conduct an investigative audit. State Auditor Cindy Byrd released some findings in October.
"I have seen a lot of fraud in my 23 years and this situation is deeply concerning," Byrd said at a news conference Oct. 1. "Our audit is around 120 pages long — so it would take hours to explain all the violations we discovered."
Helping the grand jury in its investigation is a special counsel, former state Labor Commissioner Melissa McLawhorn Houston.
Attorney General Mike Hunter announced her appointment as special counsel in October and said she will "conduct an extensive review of the auditor’s findings and make recommendations based on the rule of law."
Houston was seen Wednesday leaving a restricted area of the attorney general's office at the same time as the OSBI agent. She declined comment Thursday.
In October, Houston said, “There has been much scrutiny and inquiry surrounding Epic Charter Schools for many years. Oklahomans deserve a fair and unbiased look at the findings, and that is exactly what I am prepared to give them.”
In a statement Friday, Epic Superintendent Bart Banfield said, "Multicounty grand juries are private, but as we have done for the last eight years, we will fully cooperate if asked. We serve more than 55,000 students and their families within the confines of the law and to the best of our ability each and every day.”
Grand jurors issued no indictment last week. They are scheduled to meet next on April 6.
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,... Read more ›
Nuria Martinez-Keel joined The Oklahoman in 2019. She found a home at the newspaper while interning in summer 2016 and 2017. Nuria returned to The Oklahoman for a third time after working a year and a half at the Sedalia Democrat in Sedalia,... Read more ›