Despite claims by mainstream media outlets, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) did not launch an official investigation into the Houston-based Harmony Public Schools. The TEA confirmed to Breitbart Texas on Friday they did not open a formal probe and reports indicating they did are incorrect.
A flurry of stories about the alleged probe started Friday, July 29. The Houston Chronicle reported: “The Texas Education Agency is launching an investigation into the state’s largest charter school operator following complaints the school funneled contracts to Turkish-owned vendors who have ties to Harmony Public School’s leadership.”
— Andrea Zelinski (@andreazelinski) July 29, 2016
Texas Education Board launches probe on Gülenist Harmony Charter schools for misusing $1.9 million of state funds https://t.co/PDL7EiCOBa
— DAILY SABAH (@DailySabah) July 30, 2016
Breitbart Texas obtained a July 28 letter the TEA sent to Harmony Superintendent Zekeriya Yuksel in response to a 12-page supplementary complaint Amsterdam filed against Harmony on July 6. The letter appears to be the source of erroneous reports that the TEA opened a probe. While it confirmed the agency “received a complaint,” it asked for more documentation to determine the complaint’s merit including contracts, bonds, accounting records, purchasing agreements, vendors, a list of employees involved in purchasing decisions between July 1, 2014 to July 31, 2o16, and a detailed description of the relationship between Harmony’s charter holder Cosmos Foundation and an allegedly Harmony-created company, Charter School Solutions (CSS).
However, TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson told Breitbart Texas, “This is a review of the complaint, not an investigation.”
Later, the Chronicle softened: “The Texas Education Agency wants to dig into records of Harmony Public Schools following complaints the state’s largest charter school operator has funneled contracts to Turkish-owned vendors who have ties to the organization’s leadership.”
On Saturday, July 30, “The Wall Street Journal reported: “The state of Texas has launched an investigation into alleged fiscal improprieties at the state’s largest chain of charter schools.”
While an investigation may result from one or both complaints Amsterdam & Partners LLP, the law firm representing the Turkish government, lodged against Harmony, Friday was not that day.
Harmony, the largest charter chain in Texas and the second largest charter network in the United States, stands accused of questionable business practices including fraud, misappropriation of taxpayer dollars, shady business dealings, discrimination, and conflicts-of-interest.
The Republic of Turkey retained Robert Amsterdam’s law firm in late 2015 on a reportedly $50,000 a month retainer to conduct a comprehensive international investigation over Harmony’s purported ties to Fethullah Gülen, the controversial Muslim cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania. Turkey accused Gülen of masterminding the Islamist country’s failed coup in July. Gülen denied any connection and suggested the military action was staged by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey demanded the U.S. extradite Gülen as did Amsterdam.
The law firm also investigated Gülen’s alleged illegal activities through the reputed Gülen Organization, which Amsterdam has called a “cult-like movement” founded upon a “deeply troubling ideology” that covertly tries to “instill Turkish culture and Gülenist ideology in our American students.” Says Amsterdam, the schools provide a source taxpayer funds to misappropriate and launder to finance anti-government activities.
Gülen fled his native Turkey after being accused of extremist Islamist activities in 1999. Today, he is considered a fierce opponent of Erdoğan, although the two were allies until 2013. Then, as Turkish Prime Minister, Erdoğan accused Gülen of secretly backing a corruption investigation into the government, something Erdoğan called retaliation after he shut down some Gülen’s schools in Turkey.
Harmony CEO and co-founder, Soner Tarim maintains the schools “do not teach religion” and “have no affiliation with Fethullah Gülen or the so-called Gülen movement” and does not fund them. Tarim denied vendor improprieties, claiming Harmony uses the Texas bidding or procurement process.
In May, Breitbart Texas reported Amsterdam filed a 32-page complaint against Harmony. They asked the TEA to investigate and sanction the charter chain over purportedly misusing the H-1B visa program, exhibiting discriminatory employment and vendor bidding practices, and siphoning off money to the Gülen Organization. Among other allegations, the July 6 complaint accused Harmony of fraud and financial wrongdoing with $18 million worth of Texas taxpayer funds. It asserted that CSS was part of a shell-game to defraud taxpayers.
On Friday, Robert Schulman, Harmony’s appointed director and general legal counsel, told the Chronicle: “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He called the allegations baseless and part of a political move by the Turkish government to discredit the school system. Schulman is named in the July 6 complaint, alleging a conflict in his role presiding over the CSS board.
Conversely, Robert Amsterdam told Breitbart Texas by email Friday, “There is a dramatic need to investigate this cult and its education of 60,000 American students.” He added that they welcome any and all investigations “to safeguard American children and curtail this criminal operation.”
In 2014, the FBI raided 19 of their schools. Previously, the New York Times exposed corruption of taxpayer money associated with the Cosmos Foundation, founded in 2001 by a group of professors and businessmen from Turkey. Many were dubbed Gülen followers.
Breitbart Texas reported as many as 150 Harmony charter schools operate in approximately 26 U.S. states under a variety of franchise names. Many are mired in controversy, coming under investigation for misuse of public funds, abuse of the H-1B visa program and kickback schemes. Harmony serves nearly 31,000 students on 46 campuses in Texas where the chain plans to open 10 more schools over the next two years. The state funds these open enrollment public charter schools with more than $250 million state and federal taxpayer dollars annually.
Based on the May complaint, still under review by the TEA, state Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) urged Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to investigate Harmony, Breitbart Texas reported.
Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.