State Sues Florida Company Over Management of Federal COVID Relief Program For Students

Friday, 05 August 2022 20:22

State Sues Florida Company Over Management of Federal COVID Relief Program For Students Featured

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by Jennifer PalmerReese Gorman and Clifton Adcock

The state of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to recoup money from a contractor it hired to distribute emergency federal education funds during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit names the state’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services as well as the state’s Office of Educational Quality and Accountability as plaintiffs against the former vendor, Florida-based Kleo Inc., the parent company of ClassWallet.

Oklahoma officials hired ClassWallet in August 2020 to distribute $17.3 million in federal Governor’s Emergency Educational Relief funds, a program commonly referred to as GEER.

ClassWallet provided services for two aid programs for Oklahoma: The Stay in School grant, which provided up to $6,500 in tuition assistance to parents of private school students who were affected by the pandemic, and Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet, which provided $1,500 grants to low-income families to buy educational materials.

For its services, Oklahoma paid ClassWallet a $650,000 cut of the GEER funds.

A joint investigation by Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier in May found that hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Bridge the Gap program went toward non-educational items such as smartphones, televisions, video game consoles, Christmas trees and barbeque grills, among other items.

As the program kicked off, parents had questions about whether there were restrictions on what they could buy. Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, a Republican candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, gave a representative from ClassWallet blanket approval for any items on ClassWallet’s online platform, emails obtained by the news outlets revealed.

A watchdog agency recommended the U.S. Department of Education claw back at least $650,000 in misspent funds and require Oklahoma to review an additional $5.5 million in purchases, according to a federal audit report released July 18. Auditors also found the state failed to follow federal guidelines for four of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s five educational relief programs.  

Records obtained by The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch show that state officials, including the governor’s office, Office of Management and Enterprise Services and the Attorney General’s Office were aware of numerous problems with the programs and that federal investigators were examining how they were administered since early 2021.

The records also show that Walters, executive director of the nonprofit organization Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, was instrumental in helping ClassWallet secure a no-bid contract with the state even before he was appointed secretary of education in September 2020. ClassWallet operates similar programs in other states.

The state claimed in the lawsuit that ClassWallet failed to preserve records verifying student eligibility for the Stay in School grant program, failed to follow guidelines for allowed purchases in the Bridge the Gap program and failed to submit required monitoring reports to the U.S. Department of Education.

The state seeks more than $150,000 for breach of contract and fraud, and asks that the court declare the company a subrecipient of the grant funds, which would make it legally responsible to monitor and submit reports on how the money was spent.

The question of who was the subrecipient has been a point of contention between ClassWallet and the state. Federal auditors and ClassWallet claim the company was only a contractor or vendor, while the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability was the subrecipient. The Stitt administration sent the money through the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, which then cut ClassWallet a check.

This story was produced in partnership with the Oklahoma nonprofit newsroom The Frontier.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

Clifton Adcock has been an investigative journalist in Oklahoma for decades, and joined The Frontier in 2017. Since joining The Frontier, Adcock has written extensively about politics, criminal justice, medical marijuana and the environment. Contact him at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow @cliftonhowze

Reese Gorman joined The Frontier in 2022 after a stint at The Norman Transcript. Gorman primarily covers state and federal government for The Frontier. Contact him at reese@readfrontier.com. Follow @reesejgorman

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