A former administrator at Community Academy Charter School has filed a whistle-blower suit alleging that she was improperly fired the day after federal agents raided the school in August.
Adorable Harper, a 1999 graduate, charges that officials at the Kensington charter retaliated against her for filing a complaint with federal investigators detailing "a pattern of criminal misuse of local, state, and federal funds."
Dave Frankel, one of Harper's attorneys, said the suit, filed recently in Common Pleas Court, contends that the defendants "illegally retaliated against our client for blowing the whistle."
The suit names Joseph Proietta, the charter founder and chief executive officer; Anna Duvivier, the chief operating officer; and International Education & Community Initiatives, a related nonprofit that does business under the name One Bright Ray Inc.
The officials, the complaint alleges, ran the charter and the nonprofit "like private fiefdoms or family businesses rather than the publicly funded school and nonprofit entities they are."
The Inquirer reported in October that Proietta had five relatives on the charter's payroll and that his wife was a consultant to the school.
In addition to citing the state whistle-blower law, the complaint alleges civil conspiracy, wrongful termination, and defamation. Harper has been unable to find a job since losing her position as assistant chief operating officer at the charter, the suit says.
Proietta denied all the allegations and said Harper was one of three employees laid off for financial reasons.
"I believe the accusations are false and that the school will be proven to have been correct in its actions," he said yesterday.
"The layoffs were due to the unexpectedly small increase in funding for charter schools and the [state] budget impasse that had a devastating effect on all charter schools and nonprofits in Pennsylvania."
Proietta, who opened Community Academy as the city's first charter in 1997, said he had not known when he laid her off that Harper had a role in the federal raid.
"In August 2009, I had no idea that she was involved in any whistle-blowing," he said. "In fact, I had a long and close, friendly relationship with Adorable, and I am shocked that she was [involved]. I would never have expected it."
Duvivier's attorney declined comment.
Community Academy, which has 1,216 students, is one of at least six area charters being investigated by federal and district authorities for possible misuse of public funds.
On Aug. 26, more than a dozen federal agents raided the charter and carted away boxes of documents and copies of computer hard drives.
Prosecutors are probing allegations of nepotism and financial mismanagement, as well as the charter school's ties with One Bright Ray, according to those with knowledge of the probe.
The nonprofit pays salaries to Proietta and Duvivier and to other charter employees, owns the charter's building, and operates two alternative schools under a contract with the district.
In her lawsuit, Harper claims that the federal raid was triggered by her online complaint in July to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General in Washington.
The lawsuit claims that when the raid occurred nearly a month later, a federal investigator from that office approached Duvivier and said, "Where is Adorable Harper?"
Harper raised her hand. Everyone within earshot, the suit says, including Duvivier and Proietta, could hear the agent "single out" Harper, the suit says.
The following day, Duvivier asked Harper whether she had spoken to the FBI, and Harper responded that she had not.
That afternoon, Proietta and Duvivier told Harper she was fired.
According to the suit, Proietta said he had to lay off Harper because of the state budget impasse in Harrisburg. He told her the termination "had nothing to do" with the federal investigation.
Prior to the raid, the suit says, Harper had received only positive job evaluations and several promotions.
A spokeswoman for the Inspector General's Office in Washington could not be reached yesterday for comment on Harper's role in the probe or on her lawsuit.
John J. Pease, an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia who is overseeing the charter investigations, declined to comment on the Community Academy probe.
Harper could not be reached yesterday. But her lawsuit outlines how her concerns about mismanagement at Community grew as she progressed through the organization. Before losing her job, she was overseeing the human resources, information-technology, business, and other nonacademic departments.
The suit said Harper found that officials could not document how grant funds had been spent. She also concluded that the charter was inflating its enrollment to obtain additional Title I funds from the federal government.
In late 2008, when the School District's inspector general began investigating nepotism and the mingling of charter and nonprofit funds, Proietta told Harper to update resumes and create job descriptions for his relatives. Concerned about misleading district investigators, Harper refused.
Over the summer, the suit says, Harper became convinced that Proietta and Duvivier were "either setting her up" to be held responsible for problems with school records, "trying to force her to commit fraud, or both."
On July 24, Harper e-mailed her allegations to the federal hotline in Washington.