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Chairman of voucher foundation arrested

Published Aug. 27, 2005

The head of a nonprofit Ocala foundation was arrested Thursday and charged with stealing more than $268,000 in public money intended to send poor children to private schools.

The arrest of James Isenhour of Ocala, chairman and director of the Silver Archer Foundation, came months after a series of newspaper articles drew attention to the state's voucher program. It is the first arrest tied to the controversy.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher alleges that Isenhour committed grand theft last year when he raised $268,125 under the voucher program but never awarded any of the required scholarships.

"Mr. Isenhour should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for denying parents the opportunity to pursue a better education for their children," Gallagher said in a written statement.

Isenhour was booked into the Marion County Jail and charged with grand theft. Robert Altman, a lawyer who has represented Isenhour in the past, could not be reached for comment.

Gov. Jeb Bush's Department of Education has been criticized for not fully vetting Isenhour before deeming him eligible to participate in the voucher program.

Late last year, the governor and Secretary of Education Jim Horne proposed a series of steps to better screen organizations that raise money through the voucher program.

"The system is working," said Bush spokeswoman Jill Bratina. "The Department of Education took quick action, and we believe the legislation we're proposing is going to further prevent this type of situation from occurring again."

Other groups that participate in the voucher program did not defend Isenhour.

"If anyone misused this program, which was created to help improve education for low-income kids, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," the Florida Association of Scholarship Funding Organizations said in a statement.

Isenhour's case first came to light last August in a series of articles in the Palm Beach Post that suggested he had awarded far fewer scholarships than he should have under the Corporate Income Tax Scholarship program that the Republican-led Legislature established in 2001.

Under one of the state's three voucher programs, private corporations can forgo paying state taxes if they donate an amount equal to their tax bill to a scholarship funding organization, such as the one Isenhour registered with the state.

The organizations are supposed to use the money to pay tuition for low-income children.

After the problems with Silver Archer surfaced, Horne questioned his department's handling of the approval process that authorized Silver Archer, which is not incorporated or registered in Florida, to participate. Isenhour had owned a correspondence school in Ocala until it went bankrupt. He has a long history of lawsuits and criminal charges, but no convictions.

An affidavit filed Thursday by Gallagher's office alleges that between March and August of last year, Isenhour told Pulte Homes Inc. and its subsidiaries that he was seeking donations under the corporate income tax program to pay for scholarships for 100 students.

The affidavit says that after Pulte donated $268,125 to the Silver Archer Foundation, none of the money was awarded to students; rather, it was diverted to business interests linked to Isenhour.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.