Lawyers for Turkey call for probe of Chicago charter school

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Lawyers for the government of Turkey filed a complaint Tuesday with the Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general against a local charter group and its taxpayer-funded school in Rogers Park. | Sun-Times file photo

Lawyers for the government of Turkey filed a complaint Tuesday with the Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general against a local charter group and its taxpayer-funded school in Rogers Park.

The complaint alleges Des Plaines-based Concept Schools and its Chicago Math and Science Academy engage in “sweetheart deals” that hurt local taxpayers — but benefit the global movement led by Turkish-born cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in a bitter struggle with the 75-year-old Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and has ties to charter-management firms that run about 150 schools across the country, including CMSA and three other publicly funded Concept campuses in Chicago.

Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen (pictured in July 2016) | AP file photo

Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen (pictured in July 2016) | AP file photo

The attorneys for Erdogan’s government, led by Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Robert Amsterdam, have filed similar complaints with education officials in three other states in recent months.

In a statement, Concept Schools said the Turkish government’s complaints are “politically motivated stunts” and that officials in other states have “found no merit to their claims.”

“Concept has followed all guidelines set forth by Chicago Public Schools and the Illinois State Board of Education,” according to the statement.

CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler declined to comment.

In their complaint here, lawyers for Turkey accused CMSA’s board of working with Concept and its real-estate arm “to commit ongoing fraud, waste and financial mismanagement of state and federal funds through a series of costly decisions regarding the CMSA property and the construction of a gym.”

The complaint centers on complicated land and financial arrangements involving CMSA and New Plan Learning. The Concept-affiliated group owns the site of the 12-year-old school at 7212 N. Clark St. and is also the landlord at Concept-run campuses in Ohio.

In 2011, New Plan Learning used money from a bond issue to buy the North Side school building from CMSA, add a gym and expand three schools in Ohio.

Under the deal, CMSA was on the hook to pay about $40 million in rent to New Plan Learning, the Chicago Sun-Times has reported.

The newspaper also revealed in 2013 that the CMSA board treasurer at the time of the bond issue, Edip Pektas, was paid $100,000 by New Plan Learning as a financial adviser on the deal.

The lawyers for Turkey say the lease deal for the school building outlined “extremely poor terms for CMSA” and was renegotiated “for worse terms” a couple of years ago.

They also allege CMSA’s $1 million gym has “multiple leaks in its roof, cracks in its foundation, rodent problems, sanitary issue and flooring that peeled upward due to an improperly installed bleacher system.”

In an affidavit filed with the Turkish government’s complaint Tuesday and in an interview with the Sun-Times, former CMSA athletic director Jennifer D’Ambrosio said leaks from the gym room often caused large puddles to form on the floor, with school staff using garbage cans to gather rainwater.

Jennifer D’Ambrosio | Dan Mihalopoulos/Sun-Times

Jennifer D’Ambrosio | Dan Mihalopoulos/Sun-Times

D’Ambrosio left CMSA in May after six years and now works at a suburban public school. She recently filed an employment discrimination complaint against CMSA with the federal government. She says she was paid less than Turkish-born male teachers at the school who had fewer credentials and shorter tenure.

Concept officials predicted her discrimination complaint will be “quickly dismissed and will have no effect on the academic or extracurricular activities at our school.”

Before going to work at CMSA, D’Ambrosio worked for a private school with ties to Gulen in the northwest suburbs. Administrators at the private school got her a job as a teacher at CMSA in 2010, she says.

Gulen was a strong supporter of Erdogan before a rift became public three years ago. Until then, the Niagara Foundation — a Gulen-affiliated not-for-profit group in Chicago — hosted Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and other lawmakers on tours of Turkey, according to state records.

Now, the Turkish government is pressing Washington to send Gulen back to his homeland, accusing him of being behind a failed coup against Erdogan last summer. Gulen denies any involvement in the uprising — though he told CNN in July “there might have been some sympathetic people” who participated in the coup attempt.

Gulen’s spokesman has denied he takes any direct role in overseeing the schools his followers have founded and operate in the U.S. and many other countries.

The Turkish government’s lawyers filed a complaint in October against Concept in Ohio, where most of its schools are located. They also recently asked education officials in Texas and California to investigate other charter groups tied to Gulen’s movement.

“The breadth and expanse of the Gulen organization and its grip on the American public education system cannot be exaggerated,” the lawyers told the Chicago schools’ inspector general. “CPS owes its taxpayers a duty to protect its limited resources and ensure that public funds are not being used to illegally enrich the private interests of a vast religious organization engaging in white collar criminal conduct.”

Suspecting grant fraud had enriched companies with ties to Concept, federal investigators raided the group’s offices near O’Hare Airport, the CMSA campus and other Concept schools and vendors in June 2014. No charges have been filed.

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