Judge dismisses charter schools’ defamation lawsuit against Oklahoma state senator

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – An Oklahoma judge has put an end to a charter school’s legal fight against a state senator.

In September, Oklahoma Sen. Ron Sharp told KFOR that EPIC Charter Schools had violated state law on a number of issues.

“If this goes the way it looks like it’s going right now, this could be the biggest political scandal in American history,” Sen. Ron Sharp (R – Shawnee) said.

He claimed the charter school system was making a “blatant misrepresentation of enrollment numbers” to get more state funding.

​”They’re out of compliance. That’s not a question, and that’s costing our taxpayer dollars millions,” Sen. Sharp said.​

However, leaders with EPIC said they have done nothing wrong.

“We either have libel or we have ignorance. ​What he’s saying about EPIC is a lie,” Bobby Stem, founding chairman of the board for EPIC, said.

Stem says Sen. Sharp’s claims are false and insists EPIC complies with all financial reporting laws.

“Every dollar is accounted for, and because of some recent legislation, even the management company will begin disclosing some of those dollars as well now. I don’t know where he’s getting that, but what’s more concerning is that a senator who sits on the Senate education appropriations committee doesn’t know this​,” Stem said.

News 4 obtained a letter from the State Department of Education to Sen. Sharp saying EPIC has abided by the law.

​”The State Board of Education did not do their oversight authority, and the state virtual charter school board, no one did their due diligence in making sure this is compliant, and that’s why the OSBI is having to come in​, and we don’t know how far that’s going to go,” Sen. Sharp said.

The OSBI began investigating EPIC in February of 2019, but no charges have been filed.

In December, EPIC Charter Schools filed a defamation lawsuit against Sen. Sharp, claiming that Sharp published false statements about the school and refused to retract them.

Previously, Sharp had said that it was “troubling” that the school doesn’t understand it is open to public scrutiny since it receives public funding.

“It is the statutory responsibility of a legislator to scrutinize every single dollar that is spent by a public school. In the case of Epic, $111 million was allocated in FY 2018-19 to Epic as a public school. Any questionable allocation of tax dollars to any public agency or school must be thoroughly examined. For a public school to consider that a legislator responsible for oversight of tax dollars should cease and desist in questioning its spending is unprecedented,” Sen. Sharp said in a statement.

On Wednesday, a judge dismissed the defamation lawsuit that was filed against Sen. Sharp.

In his ruling, the judge determined that Sharp’s comments are protected and were not malicious.

After the ruling, Bart Banfield, superintendent of EPIC Charter Schools, sent KFOR the following statement: 

“It’s notable that someone who took an oath to uphold the law defended himself by saying he has a license to lie as a public official. He claimed he was immune to the same type of civil liability any other citizen has. No one should be above the law, including Mr. Sharp. However, Mr. Sharp admitted in a sworn affidavit that his statements about EPIC were only his beliefs and not actual statements of fact. We are pleased he has admitted his falsehoods against EPIC are merely his opinion and are not the truth. As an organization, we will discuss today’s ruling and our legal options.”

Bart Banfield, superintendent of EPIC Charter Schools

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