A dark money group that pumped nearly $100,000 into the Philadelphia mayoral primary in the waning days of the race last month appears to be tied to an obscure educational consulting company based in Peoria, Ill., according to a Federal Communications Commission document.
The head of that consulting group helped found a Peoria charter school that was raided by the FBI last year due to alleged ties to Turkey's mysterious "Gülenist" political movement.
A nonprofit called Leadership Matters Inc. spent $93,000 on last-minute political attack ads targeting Jim Kenney, who eventually won the Democratic primary May 19.
Leadership Matters used a Washington, D.C. political consultant as a go-between to obscure the identity of individuals behind the anti-Kenney group. But the nonprofit apparently filed a political disclosure form with local Fox affiliate WTXF (Fox 29) in May, naming four board members.
The individuals listed on that document, Cynthia Fischer, Cheryl Sanfilip, Timothy Ryon and Thomas Simpson, also form a Peoria-based educational consulting company that has an identical name as the political group.
The consultant retained by the Leadership Matters nonprofit told WHYY's Dave Davies on Thursday that the group's nonprofit status means they are not bound by Philadelphia or Pennsylvania campaign finance rules requiring disclosure of a governing board or contributors. The Ethics Board indicated that it is examining the validity of that claim.
The four individuals named in the FCC form had all formerly served as principals or assistant superintendents within the Peoria school district but left to found the private consulting group in 2009, around the time the Peoria district authorized the creation of several charter schools.
Fischer, a 34-year Peoria school district veteran, was involved in chartering the first of those schools, now called Quest Charter Academy.
That school was operated by a company called Concept Charter, as part of a national network of charter schools that were tied to exiled Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen, who now lives in northeastern Pennsylvania. Gülen was purportedly using the charter company to hire Turkish teachers and administrators while raising money for political causes.
Truebright Academy, a charter school in Philadelphia's Olney neighborhood, was led by principal Akin Ozturk, who was also connected to the Gülen movement. The SRC voted to shutter that school last year for poor performance.
In January 2015, Quest cut ties with Concept, although it retained several administrators that had been affiliated with the charter operator, notably current principal Ali Kuran. Fischer was promoted to a post as interim director.
Fischer's company, Leadership Matters, had meanwhile secured lucrative contracts in the Galesburg and Danville school districts, near Peoria, promising to boost student attendance.
Ryon, reached over the phone, said the group had not been active for a year and a half, and that he had not spoken to other members "in months." He said he had no idea how Fox 29 got the board's information or why they were listed on a political disclosure form, suggesting the document was erroneous.
"We haven't bought any advertising," he said. "We have nothing to do with that."
Simpson, who filed Leadership Matters' incorporating documents, also said during a phone interview neither he nor any of his partners had any involvement with Philadelphia politics. He backed up that statement by saying that he spoke with the other members several times a week.
"We have a small consulting group in Peoria. We have not been in Philadelphia," he said, when reached over the phone.
He said the group had never been involved in politics, and had not retained any political consultants.
However, Simpson acknowledged that he and Sanfilip had been involved with a "grassroots" quasi-political action committee, called Change150, that was pressuring the Peoria school district to hire an outside consulting companies to conduct an independent review of its educational practices. An organizer of that group had worked for the Peoria-based construction machinery manufacturer Caterpillar, the company that helped sponsored the creation of Quest Academy.
Fischer's bio also describes her as an advocate of school choice, who had "worked with a not-for-profit organization in developing a charter school from a grass roots level."
Kenney had been running against state Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a politician who championed school choice issues. Kenney was heavily backed by teachers' unions that are opposed to the creation of new charter schools.
However, Simpson said he would have been very surprised to learn that Fischer, who did not respond to phone calls, or any of his colleagues were involved with promoting those causes through political means. He said the WTXF document might have been an error or coincidence because of the similarly named organizations.
"We're not involved with school reform issues," he said. "Unless you consider charter schools to be school reform."