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Feds investigate Denver Schools’ relationship with nonprofit

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DENVER -- A partnership between Denver Public Schools and a nonprofit business run by a well-connected convicted embezzler has grabbed the attention of the FBI.

A source with direct knowledge of the probe tells FOX31 Denver the FBI is vetting information regarding possible financial irregularities involving the P.U.S.H. Academy and the not-for-profit Young Adults for Positive Action.

PUSH High School in Denver

PUSH High School in Denver

P.U.S.H. is a low-performing public high school in northeast Denver. DPS records show the “intensive pathways” school last year failed to meet accreditation standards for Student Progress Over-Time, Student Achievement, and Post-Secondary Readiness.

After prompting from the FOX31 Problem Solvers, DPS admitted that its chief financial officer (and former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives) Mark Ferrandino “did (recently) have a meeting with the FBI about P.U.S.H. Academy and YAPA.” The district said to contact Denver-based federal agents for further comment.

For the past year, the Problem Solvers have been investigating the cozy relationship among DPS, the leader of YAPA, his wife and former P.U.S.H. principal, his sex offender son and a former Denver School Board member.

The FBI will not say whether its investigation was sparked by the investigative work, but it appears agents and the journalists are on a similar path for information.
yapa

Unauthorized removal of property

It was hot Monday morning the week after Denver Public Schools released students for the summer. Outside the P.U.S.H Academy, a maintenance crew mowed the lawn, a new custodian moved in and out of the building with cleaning supplies, and a security guard occasionally drove the parking lot.

Also outside on June 6: A trio of cameras aimed at the front and propped-open rear doors of the troubled school.

At around 10 a.m., a black pickup truck arrived. A man and a woman, neither of whom were Denver Public Schools employees, began to load the vehicle with equipment, boxes and supplies from inside P.U.S.H.

At times, the pair used a rolling chair like a moving cart to wheel items up the sidewalk.

Refrigerator being loaded into pickup truck

Refrigerator being loaded into pickup truck

All of the goods could not be identified. From the front, the man loaded a small black refrigerator/freezer into the bed of the truck, while putting other items like a fan, two laptops, a box of miscellaneous small electronics and surge protectors inside the cab.

After driving around to the back of the building, the pair filled the truck with kitchen equipment, a pair of speakers, a slide top freezer, microphone stands and what looked like music stands.

Concerned school district staff had been speaking with the Problem Solvers about what they called a “family affair” operating inside the school, with accusations that higher-ups at DPS had been turning a blind eye to financial improprieties and gross conflicts of interest involving educational tax dollars.

Charles Robertson

Charles Robertson

The person loading the truck was Charles Edward Robertson, the co-founder of YAPA. Records show the other founder is recently resigned Denver School Board member Landri Taylor.

In March 2015, DPS approved funding to YAPA for $165,432 out of the general fund. YAPA promised in return to provide “extended day activities, wraparound services and advocacy support for families.”

Landri Taylor

Landri Taylor

Taylor was an active member of the school board and on the YAPA board when the contract was signed.

“I don’t believe my involvement was a conflict of interest,” and that “YAPA’s services were valuable to the community," Taylor said last week.

Taylor said YAPA helped with after-school tutoring services, mentoring for students, and, at times, bought groceries for needy students’ families.

Although not part of the “partnership agreement,” DPS also apparently provided free office space for YAPA inside the P.U.S.H. Academy for at least the school years of 2014-15 and part of 2015-16.

Other financial documents, obtained from sources with knowledge of the federal investigation, show Robertson was also operating business inside the high school in 2013. A “job invoice” shows Robertson’s name and apparent signature on a “work order” for unloading a delivery consisting of a “display case” and an “ice cream freezer.”

YAPA office

YAPA office

The free office space allowed Robertson to come to work with his wife, P.U.S.H. principal Angela Robertson. The Robertsons' son, Kendall, was a YAPA staff member during the 2014-15 school year, serving in a youth leadership role. He was also being paid by DPS as an employee and coach.

Kendall Robertson was fired earlier this year from DPS and removed from the YAPA website after getting caught trolling through underage female students’ cellphones looking for sexual content. Kendall Robertson was convicted of invasion of privacy for sexual gratification in January and sentenced to register as a sex offender.

While investigating Kendall’s arrest last summer, the Problem Solvers noticed YAPA had an office inside P.U.S.H. and that Charles Robertson and his wife worked in the same building.

Angela Robertson

Angela Robertson

According to information provided by the district, in early February, Angela Robertson was put on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.

By March 14, she had resigned. Neither she nor DPS would elaborate as to why. When reporters approached Angela Robertson at her house, she shouted through the door that “she couldn’t talk because (I) signed a confidentiality contract.”

That brings us back to June 6.

Because his principal wife was no longer at the P.U.S.H. Academy and DPS had decided to stop supporting YAPA financially, Charles Robertson needed to move from his YAPA office, which was in room 214 in the high school.

We wanted to make certain that because Charles Robertson was moving goods out of a public school, that he only took what belonged to (and was paid for by) YAPA.

Charles Robertson's mugshot

Charles Robertson's mugshot

Charles Robertson had stolen government property before. In 2001, when he was deputy director of Denver Parks and Recreation, he was convicted of felony embezzlement of public property. According to prosecutors, he filched office, photography and surveillance equipment from work, along with fax machines, fire extinguishers, trophies and football jerseys.

When approached in the school parking lot while he was still loading kitchen pans and warmers into his truck, Robertson declined to say much.

Reporter: We hear that federal law enforcement agents have been looking at the finances between YAPA and the school district.

Robertson: Uh-huh.

Reporter: What do you know about that? Can you tell us anything at all?

Robertson: Nah.

Reporter: What are you doing here today?

Robertson: Removing YAPA stuff.

Reporter: Is the school district ending its association with YAPA?

Robertson: (Silence)

Reporter: Can you tell us anything about the association with YAPA and the school?

Robertson: (Silence)

Reporter: You're not going to talk about this at all?

Robertson: (Silence)

Reporter: Nice speakers? Those are YAPA speakers? Those are YAPA speakers not school district speakers?

Robertson: (Silence)

DPS Backtracks, then investigates

After the parking lot encounter, DPS said Robertson had permission to take everything that was piled into the bed and back seat of the truck.

“Karen Powell, interim principal for PUSH this year/new principal for next year, was there while they were moving their things and was taking inventory of what was removed," according to an email from the district. "Principal Powell worked with the DPS Department of Safety to cross-reference the items to ensure that only YAPA property was removed.”

The district said four cameras, two camera stands, two speakers, 20 black table cloths, four large warmers, two long heating pans, one two burner, one ice cream cooler, one miter saw with laser, YAPA folders and two menu boards were taken.

A follow-up email was sent to DPS after a number of items were missing from the list that were seen being removed by Robertson.

KDVR videotaped YAPA employees removing materials from inside P.U.S.H. academy. There are a number of items we videotaped being loaded into Charles Robertson’s truck that are not listed on the DPS “inventory” list sent to this station. These items include but are not limited to: a black refrigerator/freezer, two laptops, large surge protectors, a fan, and additional kitchen equipment (pans, warmers).  Explanation regarding discrepancies?

The answer was, in part, “Principal Karen Powell says that she did not see any YAPA employees loading those additional items into the truck. YAPA personnel told her that all of the objects that they were removing belonged to YAPA.”

When asked for proof of purchase receipts for all the goods, the district's “careful oversight” story fell apart further.

According to DPS, its investigation found YAPA had proof it owned two speakers and two camera stands, but the “other (restaurant) items did not have numbers.” When asked for a clarification, apparently the “no numbers” also means there are no receipts for the kitchen items to prove ownership.

camera

Cameras with Denver Public Schools bar code stickers on them

Four digital cameras were removed from P.U.S.H. by Robertson that turned out to be DPS property. Serial numbers on the four cameras prove it. Pictures of those cameras also show large white stickers with a bar code that reads "Denver Public Schools" stuck to the bottom of each device.

In an updated statement on July 5, a month after YAPA removed the cameras and the Problem Solvers first asked about the truck full of property leaving the P.U.S.H. parking lot in a private vehicle, DPS said: "Denver Public Schools did not contact the police regarding the four cameras. However, DPS is in the process of recovering the district’s property from YAPA.”

On July 8, DPS said the four cameras were returned to the school by the executive director of YAPA.

Weak financial oversight lets wife approve money for husband?

A concerned insider provided financial records that appear to show examples where Angela Robertson approved district spending for YAPA and directly for her husband.

One receipt shows a $437.75 rental agreement for “2 6-person Golf Cars." The customer is Charles Robertson. Approval for the expense appears to be Angela Robertson's scripted signature above the printed words “Principal.”

“The golf cart rental was for an event at P.U.S.H. Academy with YAPA," DPS said in an email. "DPS believed that the golf carts were used for students and staff during this event. This rental was paid for out of school funds, therefore, Ms. Robertson is the appropriate individual to sign for it.”

“If this is not a screaming red flag than screaming red flags don`t exist," said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank. “It doesn't take a genius to see that something is very, very wrong in this school.”

Other financial records raised questions of lax DPS oversight of financial affairs at the school. One receipt shows $226.96 worth of computer software was billed to P.U.S.H., but handwritten on the invoice are the words “Mr. Robertson” and “Nulites.”

Again, DPS had a hard time explaining the record.

"We are not sure whether there is any relationship between Nulites and YAPA," DPS wrote in an email. "However, we believe that they are separate. DPS does not have a separate partnership with Nulites.”

“When you see this type of abuse, this type of nepotism, this type of, looks like thievery, it puts a chill on all sorts of good people out there trying innovative things to help Denver students. It is demoralizing and it is sad," Caldara said.

Caldara said the findings won’t give voters much confidence as they consider approving a November ballot request by DPS to get $572 million in bond funding and another $56 million paid for with a mill levy increase.

“The reason DPS doesn't have the money it needs is because they aren't spending the money it has wisely," he said. "In fact, they are so reckless with it, you see it literally walking out the door.”

Records show DPS has never conducted a financial audit of YAPA.

DPS defends oversight, but many questions unanswered

On Wednesday, instructional superintendent Deborah Staten defended the district's handling of the June 6 YAPA move.

"I think the monitoring was successful by the current principal and I think that we recovered the items that we believed belonged to Denver Public Schools," she said.

As for her thoughts on the district’s monitoring of YAPA, its services and finances, Staten said, “I believe that the district leadership was operating in good faith with YAPA as they were providing services to the students in the far northeast community."

She defined “good faith” as the district physically seeing students receiving services from YAPA “beyond the school day and on Saturdays.”

Staten could not answer, or provided a vague answer, to dozens of other questions. To be fair, it appeared Staten had not been briefed despite the exchange of volumes of information with district officials regarding the findings.

She could not elaborate on the FBI’s interest in YAPA and the P.U.S.H. Academy, and declined to comment on why Angela Robertson was under district investigation.

Staten also declined to offer an opinion as to whether the district’s funding of a nonprofit tied to a then-active school board member was a conflict of interest.

"If YAPA was providing important services for the school district, why stop funding YAPA?” she was asked.

"We can certainly research that information and get back to you. I can’t speak to that," Staten said.

She also had a hard time explaining why it directly funded YAPA in the first place.

Records show the Urban League was initially slated to provide similar after-school services for the 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, but when that organization tried to sub the work out to YAPA, the funding fell apart.

According to a DPS statement, it received a 21st Century Learning grant from the Colorado Department of Education for an after-school program at the Denver Center of International Studies at Montbello.

Grant guidelines show the programs were to be run by the Denver Urban League. The Urban League transferred the service agreement to YAPA. Because of that, DPS needed to reapply for the grant.

“After many conversations between leaders within the school system, the decision was made to not reapply for the grant," DPS media relations director Will Jones wrote in an email. "To ensure services continued to our students and the community, DPS decided to fund from the general fund nearly $150,000 for services.”

The Urban League declined to further explain the funding mechanisms it used for the YAPA deal. Spokesperson Shawn Bradley said the organization would not comment because it was “in litigation” with one of Charles Robertson’s other enterprises, CER.