State Rep. Dwight Evans and Robert L. Archie Jr., former chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, waged a relentless Godfather-style campaign to ensure that a New Jersey nonprofit would win a contract to manage Martin Luther King High School and, when that failed, pressured the Atlanta company that won the contract to back out.
A stunning report released Thursday by the city's chief integrity officer, Joan Markman, reveals the behind-the-scenes maneuvers by Evans and Archie in a tug-of-war with the School District in March and April over who would run King.
Drawing on e-mails, documents, and interviews with more than 30 people who were either involved or witnessed the power struggle, the report provides a glimpse into backroom politics. According to the report, Archie, in one closed-door meeting, told an official from the Atlanta educational company that "this is Philadelphia and suggested that things are different here."
The report concluded that then-Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman refused to bow to pressure from Archie and Evans to award the King contract to Foundations Inc., which has worked closely with Evans for years.
In late April, Mayor Nutter directed Markman, a former federal prosecutor, to examine allegations of conflict of interest and political wrangling that erupted in the spring over King.
The pressure was so intense in one meeting that current interim Superintendent Leroy Nunery II, who was present, described it to Ackerman "in the presence of several others who reported the comment, as like something out of the movie The Godfather," the fact-finding review said.
Markman's highly anticipated report found that Evans, a longtime state representative, "mounted an intense lobbying effort to change the outcome of the match process" to secure a management contract for King to Foundations Inc., a Moorestown nonprofit company that had worked with King for years and had strong ties to Evans.
Archie, a lawyer who is a friend of Evans' and whose law firm has represented him on several matters, worked on Evans' behalf, arranging private meetings with district officials to push for Foundations and forwarding district e-mails about King to Evans and his staff, the report said.
The Committee of Seventy on Thursday called for an immediate investigation by the state attorney general and Philadelphia district attorney into findings that Evans, with the help of Archie, "used his political power to steer a contract to a favored charter school operator."
Archie and Evans blasted the report.
In a statement, Evans said he was "stunned" to be characterized as a "puppet master."
Archie said he was "shocked and angered" by the report's conclusions and emphatically rejected them.
"My support for the education of Philadelphia's children is no secret," Evans, a veteran Democrat, said. "I am stunned the city's chief integrity officer would craft a document that characterizes me as a puppet master who has the ability to pull strings and make people dance. That is simply not true. The report issued [Thursday], while written to suggest nefarious maneuvers, simply supports activities that have been well-documented for months. In public and in private meetings I made clear my intent to make Martin Luther King Jr. High School the best in the nation. To the extent that my words or actions may have ruffled feathers, that's unfortunate. However, my job and my passion is to fight for our city's children."
Evans and his staff refused to talk to Markman for the inquiry, the report said.
The report's release came three days after Archie resigned as chairman of the five-member commission.
In his statement, Archie said: "I emphatically reject the findings. They are not supported by fact and are a reach to say the least. In some cases, they are pure fiction.
"In my 21/2 years on the School Reform Commission, I have worked tirelessly as a volunteer on behalf of the children and families of the Philadelphia School District. My goal was to promote educational opportunities for each and every child.
"While I willingly agreed to be interviewed about the events surrounding Martin Luther King High School, I never agreed to have a few weeks of my service on the School Reform Commission be the subject of an inquisition in search of a scapegoat."
Mark McDonald, Nutter's spokesman, said neither Nutter nor Markman would discuss the report, which made no recommendations.
"The fact-finding mission has been completed, and members of the public and stakeholders will draw appropriate conclusions," he said. "The report is in many regards a cautionary tale."
In the aftermath of the controversy that erupted over the handling of a management contract for King, Nutter in late April announced that he had directed Markman to conduct a series of fact-finding interviews and report the results to him as soon as possible.
McDonald said that Nutter would ask the city's Ethics Board to offer ethics training to the mayor's two appointments on the SRC. He said that while the district recently provided ethics training to employees, "it may not have provided such training for SRC members."
The furor over King erupted after the SRC on March 16 approved the recommendation of an advisory committee and selected Mosaica Turnaround Partners of Atlanta over Foundations to turn King into a charter school.
Foundations had held contracts to provide services to King since 2002.
Evans has been interested in King for years, though the school in East Germantown is outside his district. He also has described himself as a "long-standing and vigorous advocate for Foundations," the report said.
King was one of six low-performing district schools the commission turned over to charter operators in March as part of Ackerman's academic reform initiative, Imagine 2014. In addition to King, Mosaica was given Birney School.
Archie recused himself from the King vote because of his personal and business relationship with Evans and Foundations.
The report focused on several closed-door meetings surrounding the King contract, including one immediately after the SRC vote. Archie directed Nunery to bring John Porter, an official with Mosaica, to meet with him and Evans in a small conference room in the district's administration building.
Evans had spoken on behalf of Foundations during the SRC meeting and stayed for the session. He told reporters that he was not happy with the vote.
Porter told Markman that during the private meeting afterward, Archie began by saying that "he would like to find a gracious way for Mosaica to withdraw" from King. And Nunery told Markman's team that Archie had suggested to Porter that "Philadelphia does not operate by the usual rules" and informed him that Evans already had a plan for King.
The report also said that Evans told Porter he did not like for-profit companies, did not know Porter, and would not work with Mosaica. Evans said he would open a competing high school if he had to, and told Porter that "others in the community would not work with Mosaica, either, and that it would be difficult" for the company to succeed at King.
"Evans made clear his hostility to Mosaica and his intention to withhold community support from Mosaica's efforts to successfully operate" King, the report said. Nunery told Markman's team that Porter was "in shock" and "shaking" after the meeting. He left the district's headquarters and got into a taxi.
The next day, Porter informed the district that Mosaica was withdrawing from King and would focus on operating Birney as a charter school.
The report concluded: "Mosaica withdrew from the operation of MLK out of concern that Evans - perceived to be a politically powerful legislator potentially harmful to Mosaica and whom Archie did not challenge and perhaps supported - could and would frustrate the company's ability" to operate King successfully, "thereby jeopardizing the company's broader prospects."
In the report, Markman also called Archie's "public recusal meaningless because at the same time he was privately promoting those interests. Archie's and Evans' actions in this matter have compromised" the School District's ability "to secure parent involvement in their children's schools, to make decisions according to a fair process, and to garner public confidence in those decisions."
The report said that not only are Archie and Evans personal friends, but Evans is a longtime client of Archie's firm, Duane Morris L.L.P.
After Mosaica backed out of the King contract, district officials told angry members of the school advisory committee that Foundations would convert the school into a charter. But within days, officials from Foundations announced that it was withdrawing, too.
Citing a climate of "unrelenting hostility," Rhonda H. Lauer, Foundations' chief executive officer, sent a letter to Archie and Ackerman saying her organization was no longer interested in participating in the district's Renaissance school-reform plan.
Instead of becoming a charter, King this fall became a district-operated Promise Academy.
Porter said Thursday that he was not surprised by anything he saw in Markman's report. "I'm glad it is over," he said, "and we can focus on what we do, which is working with students."
Conchevia Washington, a parent who chairs the advisory committee at King, said she was not surprised by Markman's findings either.
"We have said all along that Archie's participation was about more than the best interests of the children," she said. "I wish the report had been made public before he resigned, because I don't think he should be able to just walk away."
Washington added, "This has got to stop somewhere. These are adults who are fighting and bullying each other over children."
Others lauded Markman's report and lambasted the behavior it depicted.
"Hats off to the mayor for releasing the report and for a thorough investigation," said Phil Goldsmith, a managing director in the John F. Street administration. "He's walked the talk on ethics. We should have signs around our schools that say 'political-free zone.'"
Zack Stalberg, president and chief executive officer of the Committee of Seventy, called the report "a disgusting look at the way the public's business is often done in Philadelphia. We hope it gets serious follow-up."
Lauer, CEO of Foundations, continued on Thursday to stand by Foundations' performance at King and defended Evans.
"As far as I know, Dwight did what he always does," she said. "He speaks out publicly and passionately about education. He knows the quality of our work, and I know the sincerity of his intentions. So for me, the Dwight Evans I know wasn't interested in doing anything other than what's best for kids."