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Investigators Flag Ed Department For Lax Contractor Vetting

By James Fanelli | September 28, 2012 1:43pm

BROWNSVILLE — City investigators criticized the Department of Education for not doing enough to prevent blacklisted private firms from obtaining contracts in its school system, after the city awarded a lucrative contract to a firm whose owners were banned from working in schools.

A recent report by the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon flagged the DOE after finding an off-limits nonprofit got a consulting gig with a Brooklyn middle school.

Friends of Bedford billed the DOE for $59,000 for professional development and tutoring services it provided Brownsvile’s Mott Hall Bridges Academy between September and December in 2011.

Investigators say the nonprofit should never have gotten a penny because its executives, George Leonard and Niaka Gaston, were former city school workers who had misused money. Those financial irregularities had made them ineligible to work for the Department of Education, the June 4 report says.

Leonard had been the principal of Brooklyn’s Bedford Academy High School and had been credited with the small school’s high graduation rate. He retired in 2008 after 30 years of service in city schools, according to the report.

An investigation in 2009 revealed that while heading Bedford Academy, Leonard used thousands of dollars to pay the salaries of employees who were not qualified to be regular DOE employees. Gaston, the school’s assistant principal, was one of those employees.

The 2009 investigation resulted in Leonard and Gaston being placed on the DOE’s ineligible list. The same year the pair started Friends of Bedford Academy.

In 2010 the nonprofit applied to be on the DOE’s list of contractors, and in June 2011 Leonard met with a former colleague who ran Mott Hall about providing professional development to the faculty. Friends of Bedford began consulting in September.

Investigators learned of Leonard’s involvement at the school after a DOE employee spotted him leaving a school facility in November.

The report says the DOE needs better safeguards to prevent banned individuals and firms from getting contracts.

“We further recommend that a procedure be implemented to vet those who apply for DOE vendor numbers,” the report says. “At a minimum, company principals, as well as those individuals who will be providing services to DOE schools and facilities, must be checked against the DOE ineligible list.”

Both Leonard and Gaston did not respond to requests for comment.

Leonard, the nonprofit’s CEO, earned $229,500 in 2010, according to the most recently available tax filings. Gaston, the chief operating officer, had a salary of $201,540. The education department in Washington, D.C., has also hired Friends of Bedford to run two failing schools.

The Department of Education did not respond to repeated requests for comment.