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IDEA encourages whistleblowers to submit tips through new hotline

IDEA Public Schools received more than 70 reports during the past six months through a system designed to solicit information from whistleblowers.

The system, which includes both a website and a whistleblower hotline, received 72 reports from June 24 to Dec. 6, said Director of Internal Audit Javier Campos, who briefed the IDEA Audit Committee on Wednesday.

“The goal of the hotline is to ensure that IDEA’s resources are used in the best interest of students,” Campos said. “And that employees and the public have a safe way of reporting any concerns.”

The whistleblower system, which is called Lighthouse, allows people to report concerns anonymously.

IDEA previously had an ad-hoc system for reporting concerns, said board Chairman Al Lopez. Problems with that system became apparent in 2020, when questions surfaced about improper spending by senior executives.

“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 message Lopez sent to IDEA employees in May. “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 investigation concluded that “a small number of IDEA senior leaders directed the use of IDEA financial and staff resources for their personal benefit on multiple occasions. 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.”

Lopez said the investigation revealed some IDEA employees shared the tipster’s concerns.

“But they didn’t feel like they could be forthcoming,” Lopez said.

That allowed the problem to fester until someone created an anonymous email account to contact the board.

IDEA launched Lighthouse to fix that problem, Lopez said, and provide a way for employees to anonymously report any concerns.

About 50% of the concerns reported through Lighthouse from June to December involved COVID-19, Campos said. About 45% involved human resources issues.

“Irregardless of how and what type of reports are received, 100% of the reports are addressed within 36 hours,” Campos said. “And they’re investigated until they’re resolved.”

IDEA also received information related to “ongoing investigations,” Campos said. The Audit Committee spent about 24 minutes discussing those reports in executive session.

The Lighthouse system is part of a multipronged strategy designed to prevent anyone from abusing IDEA resources again.

Members of the Audit Committee receive monthly reports on spending by senior executives and people who report to them. IDEA more than doubled the number of internal auditors on the payroll. And the board adopted policies to address conflicts of interest.

“We feel like the policy improvements that we’ve put in place are pretty rigorous,” Lopez said.

In May, when IDEA provided the public with a summary of the investigation, it also invited the Texas Education Agency to appoint a monitor or conservator.

Lopez, though, said he doesn’t think IDEA actually needs a monitor or conservator thanks to policies adopted by the board.

“It’s not a: ‘We need somebody to help us look over our shoulder,’” Lopez said. “It’s a: ‘We would like — for substantiation that what we’ve done is the right thing.’”

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