California Agents Raid Charter School Suspected of Misusing Public Funds. (San Jose Mercury News, January 25, 2002)
Jan. 25--FRESNO, Calif.--State Department of Justice agents raided offices and campuses of a controversial charter school Thursday, looking for evidence that school officials had misused public funds.
Members of a state anti-terrorism unit helped monitor the day-long raids at the headquarters of Gateway Academy and six related school sites, a bank and a car-rental agency, although a Department of Justice spokeswoman said the focus of the investigation was possible fraud, not terror.
Gateway, which has operated programs in Sunnyvale and Oakland, and which had its charter revoked last week, is affiliated with a reclusive community of African-American Muslims who live in the Sierra foothills east of Fresno. That community recently has drawn the attention of federal authorities, including the FBI, which is looking into the group's ties to a national organization whose leader has been accused of promoting terrorist violence, including fire-bombings and murder, against rival religious groups.
But, said Department of Justice spokeswoman Hallye Jordan: "This is not an investigation into terrorism. We know the reports that are out there, but this was to find out whether there is financial fraud."
More than 65 state and local police officers served search warrants Thursday at sites scattered around the city. They carried away more than 100 boxes of documents and 60 computers, to the surprise of students and teachers.
Gateway officials did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
The highly unusual raid occurred eight days after the Fresno Unified School District revoked Gateway's state charter. Gateway was operating under the California charter school law, which allows independent schools to receive state funding. Police and the FBI have been assisting the Fresno school district in reviewing Gateway's finances, but Thursday's search warrants -- which were sealed by court order -- are the first indication that the scope of the investigation involves possible criminal activity.
Fresno school officials say that Gateway received about $1.1 million in state funding last year, while enrolling about 600 students at campuses around the state.
District officials say that Gateway has failed to meet deadlines for submitting required financial information and may have filed inaccurate attendance records while claiming reimbursement for ineligible programs. State education officials also are investigating whether Gateway charged tuition and taught religion at a campus in Sunnyvale, both of which are prohibited in a state-funded school.
Also Thursday, the principal of a private school in Oakland said he was surprised to learn recently that Gateway had claimed his students as part of Gateway's program.
"I don't know what they were doing," said Ta Biti Akoma, principal of the Blackhouse Institute of Education.
Akoma said he briefly considered affiliating with Gateway after the charter school approached him last spring, but eventually decided not to.
Aug. 25--FRESNO -- The founder of a California charter school was sentenced Thursday to 14 years in state prison for siphoning off taxpayer and private funds she was supposed to be using to educate disadvantaged children from the San Joaquin Valley to Sunnyvale.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge R.L. Putnam said former Gateway Academy Superintendent Khadijah Ghafur had shown sophistication, leadership and an "absolute complete lack of remorse in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt."
"Gateway could have been a shining beacon on a hill," said Deputy Attorney General Brian Alvarez, who prosecuted the case. "The sad irony is that she took that trust and used it to take money that should have been given to kids."
Ghafur sat quietly in her Muslim head scarf and a Fresno County Jail uniform, speaking only once to apologize if she had shown any disrespect to the judge.
But she, her supporters and her lawyer had blamed her prosecution on anti-Muslim discrimination sparked by unrelated terror attacks. She is appealing the case.
"Gateway Academy and Khadijah Ghafur were brought down by Sept. 11," said her attorney, Franz Criego. He said Ghafur had only "overzealously" shuffled money to keep alive her dream of serving disadvantaged children.
Thursday's sentencing of Ghafur and another Gateway administrator, who received probation, closed the cooked books on the Fresno-based charter school with alleged ties to a leader of a fringe Muslim group whose members have been linked to criminal activity in the United States and Canada.
Ghafur opened Gateway in 2000 under California's charter school law, which allows independently run schools to operate with public funding. Its first campus was on the grounds of a small Muslim community that Ghafur established in the Sierra foothills.
The schools soon spread. Ghafur opened or became affiliated with a string of other campuses around the state, including a Sunnyvale school called Silicon Valley Academy. The Sunnyvale school severed its ties with Gateway in 2002 when state officials accused that school of violating state rules against teaching religion. The Fresno Unified School District, which issued Gateway's charter, closed most of Gateway's other campuses later that year. State officials have since tightened charter rules and financial oversight.
Ghafur was convicted of diverting $75,000 in state school funds to repay a woman who lent money for Ghafur to buy land for the religious community, and $30,000 to a private corporation that authorities said later channeled money to Ghafur's husband. She was also convicted of grand theft for using inflated school attendance figures to raise $630,000 from private investors.
Shortly after the schools closed, many left the religious community known as Baladullah. It was one of several rural enclaves established around the country by mostly African-American followers of a Pakistani cleric known as Sheik Mubarik Ali Gilani.
Gilani's adherents say they are peaceful and law-abiding. But in the 1980s and '90s, authorities say, some of his followers were linked to violent crimes and a scheme to defraud the state government in Colorado. The little-known cleric won global notoriety as the person whom Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was trying to interview in Pakistan when Pearl was kidnapped and killed in 2002.