IDEA Public Schools filed a lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last month, attempting to block the release of expense reports and other documents that reveal spending by former executives.
The Progress Times filed two public information requests with IDEA in 2020. After delaying the requests for nearly a year, IDEA asked the Attorney General’s Office whether or not the documents should be released.
When the Attorney General’s Office directed IDEA to release some of the documents, IDEA responded with a lawsuit.
“The sad truth is that there are still too many exceptions in Texas law that allow governmental entities to refuse to release documents,” state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said in a statement. “Our government should not be in a position to decide what is good for us to know and what is not good for us to know. Taxpayers have an absolute right to see how their money is spent. We must repair and strengthen the Texas Public Information Act to ensure accountability and transparency in Texas government.”
The Progress Times filed public information requests after questions surfaced about profligate spending by IDEA executives.
On June 30, 2020, the Progress Times filed a request for expense reports submitted by IDEA Chief Financial Officer Wyatt Truscheit.
Along with a nearly $169,000 salary, IDEA provided Truscheit with unusual perks.
“IDEA agrees to pay the actual and incidental costs incurred by the Chief Financial Officer related to the bi-weekly commuting to/from California and/or as otherwise necessary, and the reasonable living and transportation expenses while in the Rio Grande Valley performing his duties for IDEA,” according to Truscheit’s employment contract, which became public as part of a lawsuit he filed against IDEA.
Truscheit abruptly resigned on July 16, 2020, and filed the lawsuit against IDEA two weeks later.
How much IDEA paid Truscheit for the “actual and incidental costs” of commuting from California to the Rio Grande Valley remains a mystery.
On July 22, 2020, the Progress Times requested expense reports submitted by IDEA CEO JoAnn Gama.
Gama had taken the top job that April, when IDEA abruptly parted ways with CEO Tom Torkelson amid questions about extravagant spending by executives.
Her spending also prompted questions.
“Subsequent to the departures of IDEA’s former CEO and the Chief Financial Officer over the course of last spring and summer, IDEA received emails from an anonymous sender that included detailed allegations about inappropriate expenditures and other misuse of IDEA resources,” according to a statement released by IDEA board Chairman Al Lopez in May 2021. “Upon reviewing these emails, the Board directed IDEA’s outside counsel to retain special counsel to undertake an in-depth legal and forensic review of financial transactions and activities of IDEA senior executives over the past several years.”
The internal investigation revealed more questionable expenditures.
“In summary, the review uncovered substantial evidence that in the years prior to 2020’s reforms, a small number of IDEA senior leaders directed the use of IDEA financial and staff resources for their personal benefit on multiple occasions,” according to the statement. “Furthermore, their actions appeared to be done in a manner to avoid detection by the standard external audit and internal control processes that the Board had in place at the time.”
IDEA fired Gama on May 25, 2021. The charter school system never released her expense reports.
Under the Texas Public Information Act, local governments and state agencies must respond to requests within 10 business days.
Weekends and holidays don’t count. The law also included an exception for so-called “skeleton crew” days, when not all employees are working — typically the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
During the pandemic, however, skeleton crew days allowed local governments and state agencies to indefinitely delay the processing of public information requests.
Attorneys for the charter school system claim the IDEA headquarters and central office “closed for general business” on July 6, 2020, and didn’t resume normal operations until June 14, 2021.
IDEA, though, didn’t release the documents when employees returned to work.
In letters to the Attorney General’s Office, a law firm that represents IDEA argued the expense reports shouldn’t be released. IDEA cited exceptions that cover audit working papers, law enforcement investigations and litigation.
The Attorney General’s Office disagreed and directed IDEA to release some of the documents. IDEA responded with a lawsuit on Sept. 13.
“The Board of Directors of IDEA Public Schools has been forthright about the reasons for its actions in May 2021 to install new leadership at IDEA and for the policy changes the Board implemented in 2020 to ensure that every resource entrusted to IDEA is directed toward our mission of supporting students to and through college,” according to a statement released by IDEA. “Members of the news media and public have requested certain records from IDEA that would shine further light on the Board’s reasons for those decisions and actions. IDEA is seeking judicial approval to withhold some of these records at the request of law enforcement and because they are part of an ongoing internal investigation, which triggers an exception of the Texas Public Information Act. It is in the public’s interest that law enforcement’s investigation and any resultant actions be able to be completed before these records are released.”
Along with the Progress Times requests, IDEA sued over a September 2020 request from the Advance News Journal newspaper in Pharr and a June 2021 request filed by attorney Carlos Soltero of Austin, who represents former IDEA Chief Operating Officer Irma Muñoz.
“We’d like to see all of whatever they have,” Soltero said, adding that Muñoz cooperated with the internal investigation.
Soltero said Muñoz plans to file an employment discrimination claim against IDEA.
“Our position is that she and JoAnn were treated completely differently than other c-suite people,” Soltero said.