fraud alert

Suit: Princeton Review charged city for tutoring it didn't provide

This chart from the Justice Department's lawsuit against Princeton Review shows how many times the company billed the city for tutoring students who were absent or when school was closed — and how much it was paid. (Click to enlarge)

A company hired to provide tutoring services in New York City bilked the city out of millions of dollars in federal funding for poor students, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

The department today filed a civil fraud lawsuit against The Princeton Review, Inc., alleging that the company had gotten the city to reimburse it for tutoring it had not provided. According to the suit, the company’s fraudulent claims continued even after a city investigation — never made public — turned up misconduct in 2006.

The tutoring program, known as “supplemental education services” and mandated for low-performing students in high-needs under the No Child Left Behind law, reimbursed providers based on the number of students they served. Princeton Review documented how many students it had tutored by turning in signed attendance sheets; it also gave bonuses to supervisors of tutoring sites where attendance was high. One of those supervisors, Ana Azocar, is also named in the lawsuit.

The bonus system incentivized fraud, according to the suit. Investigators found that many of the signatures showing student attendance were falsified — and sometimes names were even misspelled. The company sought reimbursement for tutoring students who were out of the country and holding sessions when schools were closed, according to the suit. At one school, the now-closed M.S. 399 in the Bronx, the company said it had tutored 74 students on New Year’s Day.

“The Princeton Review and its employees were supposed to tutor needy students, not cheat a federal program,” said Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, in a statement. “As alleged, the company and certain of its employees forged student signatures, falsified sign-in sheets, and provided false certifications in order to deceitfully profit from a well-meaning program.”

The complaint covers the years 2006 to 2010 but notes that the city’s own investigator, Special Commission of Investigation Richard Condon, had scrutinized the program’s records from before that in 2006. That year, Condon released two separate reports detailing improprieties by a number of tutoring providers — but neither named Princeton Review. Only a small fraction of SCI investigations are ever released.

A Department of Education spokesman said today that Condon’s office had referred the current allegations to Bharara’s office.

Princeton Review had a contract with the city to provide SES tutoring from 2002 until 2010, when it closed its SES division. The company is not currently a citywide vendor, but some schools have hired the company to provide preparation for standardized tests such as the SAT. More than 100 other companies are approved to offer SES tutoring to city students, and the number of eligible students grew this year as more schools failed to hit federal accountability benchmarks.

A spokesperson for Princeton Review did not deny the allegations but said that the alleged improprieties are part of the company’s past.

“The activity allegedly occurred within the company’s former Supplemental Educational Services division, which the company discontinued in 2010,” said the spokesperson. “No former SES employees or executives are with the company today, and current management — most of whom joined the company after the division was shuttered — had no involvement or role in the affairs of SES.  We are working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s office to resolve this matter expeditiously.”

The Justice Department’s press release about the suit is below, followed by the complaint filed today in Manhattan Federal Court.

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT SUES PRINCETON REVIEW

FOR CLAIMING REIMBURSEMENT FOR TUTORING SERVICES IT DID NOT PROVIDE

NEW YORK – The United States has filed a civil fraud lawsuit against The Princeton Review Inc., a leading provider of educational products and services, and Ana Azocar, a former employee at the company, for Princeton Review’s repeated submission of false claims for reimbursement in connection with a federally-funded program to provide tutoring services to underprivileged children in New York City, Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Brian M. Hickey, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Northeastern Region of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (ED-OIG), announced today.  As a result, Princeton Review received millions of dollars in federal funds for tutoring services that it did not provide.  The lawsuit seeks treble damages and civil penalties under the False Claims Act for the fraudulent reimbursement claims submitted by Princeton Review.

U.S. Attorney Bharara said, “The Princeton Review and its employees were supposed to tutor needy students, not cheat a federal program.  As alleged, the company and certain of its employees forged student signatures, falsified sign-in sheets, and provided false certifications in order to deceitfully profit from a well-meaning program.  As today’s suit demonstrates, this type of fraud will not be tolerated.”

ED-OIG Special Agent-in-Charge Hickey said, “The Supplemental Education Services program provides critical resources for deserving students who seek to improve their academic performance.  Today’s actions allege that Princeton Review billed and retained SES payments for students it did not tutor.  That is unacceptable.  Tracking down those who would cheat this important program is a priority of our office.”

As alleged in the complaint filed today in Manhattan Federal Court:

From 2002 to 2010, Princeton Review participated in a federally-funded program under which it provided Supplemental Educational Services (SES) – specifically, after-school tutoring – to underprivileged students attending underperforming schools in New York City.  Under the program, Princeton Review was paid a fixed amount of money per hour for each student it tutored by the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE), with funds provided to New York state by the federal government.  The allegations in the complaint relate exclusively to Princeton Review’s provision of SES tutoring in New York City from 2006 to 2010.  Princeton Review exited the SES business in 2010.

At each of its tutoring classes, Princeton Review had students sign in and out on an attendance form.  The company was required to keep a daily attendance record as a condition of getting paid.  However, many of Princeton Review’s site managers — employees who oversaw the day-to-day operations of its New York City SES program — routinely falsified entries on the daily student attendance forms to make it appear as though more students had attended tutoring classes than had in fact attended.  Azocar and other supervisors (called “directors”) used threats of termination and pay cuts to pressure site managers to maintain high daily student attendance.  Azocar also instructed and/or encouraged some site managers to falsify entries on the attendance forms, including by signing in for absent students.

From 2006 to 2010, Princeton Review’s daily student attendance forms and invoices were replete with falsifications such as:

  • Entries were changed to indicate that students were present after the students were initially marked as absent.  In some of these instances, the students’ signatures were obvious forgeries because the students’ own names were misspelled.  On one attendance form, a student named Dontae was signed in as “Donate.”
  • Students were signed in as present on days when their parents later confirmed they were absent.  For example, one student was in Mexico on a family vacation on four days when the student’s purported signature appears on daily student attendance forms.  Another student was signed in as present on three days when in fact a note from the student’s doctor shows that the student was home from school recuperating from surgery.
  • Princeton Review was paid for tutoring students on days when records from the NYC DOE show that the students were absent from school or school was closed.  For example, Princeton Review billed the NYC DOE for tutoring 74 students at MS 399 in the Bronx on New Year’s Day in 2008, when there were no SES classes due to the holiday.

Furthermore, Princeton Review maintained an incentive compensation system that encouraged the falsification of attendance records.  Specifically, the company paid directors substantial bonuses if the site managers they supervised consistently reported high daily student attendance.  For example, Princeton Review paid Azocar bonuses of $9,600 and $6,600 in 2008 and 2009, respectively, because the site managers she supervised consistently reported high daily student attendance.

For each invoice that Princeton Review submitted to the NYC DOE for its purported tutoring, Princeton Review certified that the information on the invoice was “true and accurate.”  Despite these certifications, most, if not all, of the monthly invoices contained false information, and the invoices billed the NYC DOE for thousands of hours of tutoring services that Princeton Review never actually provided.  As a result of these false monthly invoices, the NYC DOE paid Princeton Review millions of dollars in federal funds for tutoring services that it never in fact provided.

The complaint further alleges that Princeton Review management had previously been made aware of similar misconduct in the company’s New York City SES program, but failed to take adequate corrective action.  Specifically, in 2006, the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District investigated whether Princeton Review had overbilled the NYC DOE for SES tutoring during the 2005-2006 academic year (the academic year immediately preceding the years at issue in this suit).  Although the company hired an outside law firm to conduct an internal investigation and implemented certain compliance measures, the company failed to implement adequate corrective action, as evidenced by the fact that the company’s compliance officers routinely approved attendance forms with clear signs of fraud.  Moreover, in 2008, a Princeton Review manager was told that Azocar had instructed a site manager to forge student signatures, but the manager failed to investigate the matter adequately and allowed Azocar to keep her job.  As a result of Princeton Review’s failure to deter or detect fraud, the fraud continued.

By filing its complaint, the government joined a private whistleblower lawsuit that had previously been filed against Princeton Review under the False Claims Act.

U.S. Attorney Bharara thanked the ED-OIG for its extraordinary assistance in this case.

The case is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher B. Harwood from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York’s Civil Frauds Unit.

The Civil Frauds Unit works in coordination with President Barack Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, on which U.S. Attorney Bharara serves as a Co-Chair of the Securities and Commodities Fraud Working Group.  President Obama established the interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force to wage an aggressive, coordinated, and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes.  The task force includes representatives from a broad range of federal agencies, regulatory authorities, inspectors general, and state and local law enforcement who, working together, bring to bear a powerful array of criminal and civil enforcement resources.  The task force is working to improve efforts across the federal executive branch, and with state and local partners, to investigate and prosecute significant financial crimes, ensure just and effective punishment for those who perpetrate financial crimes, combat discrimination in the lending and financial markets, and recover proceeds for victims of financial crimes.

Princeton Review Complaint

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”