Oklahoma attorney general appoints special counsel to review Epic audit

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The Oklahoma Attorney General says he has appointed a special counsel to review a recent audit of Epic Charter Schools.

Earlier this month, the Oklahoma State Auditor & Inspector released a 120-page report showing her findings in the audit of Epic Charter Schools.

In the audit, Auditor Cindy Byrd said they reviewed Epic Charter Schools finances from 2015 to 2020.

“Epic Charter Schools was given almost a half a billion dollars during the audit period,” Byrd said. “They take 10 percent of every tax dollar that comes through the school’s door.”

According to Byrd, at least $200,000 worth of that tax money was being sent to an Epic California school.

“That money was dedicated for Oklahoma children,” she said.

Byrd added that Ben Harris and David Cheney, the co-founders of Epic Schools, were having Oklahoma teachers teach for the California school.

“Harris and Chaney used state resources and state employees to further their business interest,” she said.

Byrd also claimed the school was forced to pay the state a half million dollars from under reporting the administration costs. However, Byrd said that was just a slap on the wrist.

“By our calculations, EPIC owes the state of Oklahoma $8.9 million,” she said. “I have seen a lot of fraud in my 23 years and this situation is deeply concerning.”

“Yesterday, we witnessed pure politics on display,” said Shelly Hickman, Assistant Superintendent for EPIC. “The State Auditor, an elected politician, stood behind a podium and a gaggle of reporters and told a story. This isn’t the first time we’ve been subjected to political scrutiny, nor were the allegations new. The findings were presented with over-the-top sensationalism guaranteed to stir up defenders of the education status quo because we are growing, and they are struggling.” 

On Monday, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter appointed Melissa McLawhorn Houston as a special counsel to the AG’s office to review the audit of Epic Charter Schools.

“Working with our Criminal Justice Unit, Melissa will bring a thoughtful and objective review to the audit and findings by the state auditor,” Attorney General Hunter said. “Melissa’s experience as an attorney in state government is unmatched. She has served in a variety of roles, including secretary of education and workforce development, labor commissioner, chief of staff in the state Office of Homeland Security, as well as a wide variety of other agency policy operations. With assistance and resources provided from my office, she will conduct an extensive review of the auditor’s findings and make recommendations based on the rule of law. I appreciate her willingness to step up and help us in this vital role.”

Officials say the appointment was necessary since Hunter recused himself and much of his staff from reviewing the audit. Hunter says various members of the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office have been or remain involved in several investigations into Epic and their continued role in the ongoing litigation into Epic’s financial records.

At the same time, the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers is calling on congressional candidates to return donations they have received from Epic Charter.

“Our lawmakers should put students, teachers, and families first, not charter schools that have lined their own pockets at the expense of children,” said Torie Shoecraft, President of OKC-AFT. “Oklahomans deserve to know whose side our congressional candidates are on, and by returning these contributions, our lawmakers can show they aren’t beholden to special interests. I’m sure our candidates for public office would think twice before accepting money from a known thief, yet Epic Charter has robbed our students, and they are giving thousands of dollars to fund political races. Mary Best, President of AFT – Oklahoma, said, “It’s time for our candidates to put our kids and public schools first.”

The organization is calling on Sen. Jim Inhofe, Sen. James Lankford and House candidate Stephanie Bice to return thousands of dollars of donations from Epic and its lobbyists.

Late Monday afternoon Epic released this statement:

“It’s no secret we dispute some of the SAI’s material findings and have requested through an open records request its work papers to review their calculations so we can go beyond our initial audit response to exercise our due process and debunk these calculations.

EPIC is not perfect. No school is. But the dedication of EPIC’s 2,100 employees working here to get things right and improve our processes is. We know more than 60,000 students and their families are counting on us to work with the State Department of Education to resolve issues and we will not let them down.”

Bart Banfiled, EPIC Superintendent

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