Sunday, February 25, 2018
Education

Prosecutors: Businessman diverted education money meant for Pinellas, Hillsborough charter schools

A businessman whose companies managed 15 charter schools in Florida, including six across Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, was charged Monday with racketeering in what prosecutors said was a scheme to steer public education money his way using huge markups, bogus invoices and a web of related corporations.

From 2007 to 2016, according to an affidavit, charter schools controlled by Marcus Nelson May and his company, Newpoint Education Partners, received more than $57 million in public funds — including more than $1 million he used for personal expenses and to purchase residential and business properties in Florida.

The sum does not include the 18 percent fee and other reimbursements that Newpoint received under generous management agreements that May secured with inexperienced local charter school boards, the affidavit states.

 

A TIMES INVESTIGATION: Loose record-keeping, huge markups, a web of companies

 

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Warrants have been issued for May's arrest and the arrest of an associate, Steven Kunkemoeller, who operated Red Ignition and School Warehouse. Those companies, along with Newpoint, were the focus of a 2016 Tampa Bay Times investigation and were found to have sold marked-up goods to Newpoint-run charter schools.

The 14-page affidavit was filed in circuit court in Escambia County, where a local investigation into grade tampering and other misconduct at Newpoint-managed schools eventually spread to six other counties: Bay, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Holmes and Pinellas. It soon uncovered suspicious financial dealings and involved the Office of Statewide Prosecution.

Neither May nor his attorneys, Kim Anthony Skievaski and Dave McGee, could be reached Monday for comment.

"Justice won't be served until the criminals are behind bars," said Chris Wenzel, a parent who served as the board chairman for Windsor Preparatory Academy in St. Petersburg, one of four Pinellas charters that fell into financial ruin and closed under Newpoint's management.

"They stole money from innocent kids and the people of Florida," Wenzel said.

Among the numerous alleges against May are that he:

• Charged Hillsborough's Newpoint Tampa High $157,000 for computers that actually cost $53,844, a 192 percent markup.

• Overestimated schools' enrollments to receive more money from a federal grant program. In 2012, for example, May estimated 360 students would start in a Pinellas school, but only 170 were actually enrolled and May was overpaid $350,000.

• Used more than 85 percent of all grant funds, or more than $3.2 million, to buy furniture, computers, equipment and services at grossly marked-up prices from May-affiliated vendors.

• Directed School Financial Services to pay $150,000 in commingled school funds to a company May owned with his wife, Mary Walker May. That money was then used toward lease payments for the Mays' residence in Sarasota. Part of it also paid a salary for May's wife and reimbursements for restaurant bills, personal electronics and massages.

• Sold marked-up school uniforms from his own company. The money from those sales — including $11,000 in collections for student lunches and activities that was off Newpoint's books — was deposited into an account that May used for personal expenses, including credit card payments, a jet ski, country club costs and a car lease.

• Directed funds from so-called lease payments from Newpoint, consultation fees and other funds for a company owned by the Mays. That money was used for $355,000 in credit card bills, $190,000 for May family members, $62,000 for mortgage payments, $52,000 in utilities, pool services and homeowners fees.

The company also paid for $11,000 in plastic surgery and tens and thousands of dollars for over a dozen cruises and trips to the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.

Marcus May, 55, of 8156 Gabanna Drive in Sarasota, now faces two charges of racketeering and one charge of organized fraud, all three filed in Escambia County. His bail was set at $600,000 with the provision that he not leave Florida.

Kunkemoeller, 56, of 793 Watch Point Drive in Cincinnati, Ohio, faces one charge of racketeering and one charge of organized fraud. His bail was set at $100,000.

According to the affidavit, Kunkemoeller's School Warehouse received $375,000 in 2014 from Newpoint-managed charter schools in Pinellas and Duval with markups as high as 165 percent. It said Kunkemoeller used $175,000 of that money for his home mortgage, and sent the remaining funds to a company owned by May, who used it to pay down his home equity line of credit.

Monday's charges come one year after Newpoint was indicted by a grand jury on charges of grand theft, money laundering and aggravated white collar crime. Red Ignition and School Warehouse also indicted on similar charges.

Escambia County Assistant State Attorney Russell Edgar said he hopes to consolidate May's and Kunkemoeller's individual charges with their companies' cases.

Newpoint operated five schools in Pinellas. Four of them — Windsor Preparatory Academy and East Windsor Middle Academy in St. Petersburg and Newpoint Pinellas Academy and Newpoint Pinellas High in Clearwater — have closed, displacing about 900 students.

The remaining school, Enterprise High School in Clearwater, quietly separated from Newpoint in 2015.

Hillsborough County closed Newpoint Tampa High in 2013 after three years. Newpoint no longer manages schools in Florida.

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