PHILADELPHIA As the $6.7 million fraud trial of Philadelphia charter school founder Dorothy June Brown got underway in federal court Wednesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys painted vivid - but radically different - portraits of the longtime educator and two former administrators.
"This is not a case about kids and schools and test scores," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joan E. Burnes told jurors. "This is a case about cheating and lying. This is a case about adults and money."
During the course of the trial, Burnes said, the government will present testimony and documents showing that Brown had devised a scheme to defraud the four charter schools that she founded of taxpayer funds and then joined in a conspiracy with her codefendants to obstruct justice to cover it up.
In response, Gregory P. Miller, one of Brown's attorneys, said the defense would demonstrate that Brown has worked hard throughout her life and become a recognized educator who has won national awards, created successful schools, and helped children achieve.
"The evidence will show that Dr. Brown was focused on the children, not on the money," Miller said. "She wasn't motivated by greed but by her commitment to these children."
The 67-count indictment charges Brown with multiple counts of wire fraud, as well as obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and witness tampering.
Her codefendants are Michael A. Slade Jr., a suspended chief executive of one of Brown's charters, and Courteney L. Knight, a teacher and a former CEO at another of the charters.
Each faces charges of conspiracy and obstructing justice for allegedly fabricating documents. Their attorneys said that by the trial's end, jurors would be scratching their heads, wondering what "crimes" had been committed.
Brown founded three small elementary charter schools in Philadelphia: Laboratory, which has campuses in Northern Liberties, Overbrook, and Wynnefield; Ad Prima, with campuses in Overbrook and Frankford; and Planet Abacus, in Tacony.
She also established Agora Cyber Charter in 2005 but cut her ties with it in 2009 as part of a settlement involving several civil suits, including one from the state Department of Education. The department authorizes and oversees the cyber charters, which enroll students from across the state.
Gerald L. Zahorchak, who was an official in the department before he was named secretary of education during the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell, was called as the first witness Wednesday. He described how Brown obtained the charter for Agora.
After Agora's initial application was turned down, he said, the department approved the charter after Brown modified the application, including dropping plans to contract with an education management company.
Zahorchak said the department began an investigation in early 2009 after receiving complaints from some Agora parents who were concerned that a management contract had been awarded.
The trial is the largest of six federal fraud cases the U.S. Attorney's Office has brought against city charter schools and is the first to go to trial. Defendants in the other cases pleaded guilty.
Testimony continues Thursday before U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick, who has told jurors the trial could last six weeks.