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DC Official Lobbied City’s Own Food Contractor For Big Donation

REUTERS/Yuya Shino

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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The leader of Washington, D.C.’s, public schools tried to solicit a massive donation from a food contractor weeks after the company settled a lawsuit with the city for fraud, price-gauging and serving rotten food.

District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson asked Chartwells food services, which still holds the contract for DCPS, for a $100,000 donation through their parent company, Thompson Hospitality. The donation was meant for a black-tie gala at the Kennedy Center in 2013 honoring teachers.

Thompson ended up donating $25,000, emails obtained by the Associated Press reveal, despite a District ethics rule barring public employees from lobbying for donations with a company the city does business with.

The ethics code is meant to prevent corrupting influences and the appearance of special favors. The city does carve out certain exceptions for the DCPS chancellor, but its unclear if those exceptions applied to the money she asked for through the D.C. Public Education Fund.

“The D.C. Ed Fund does its best to attract donors to the event, and the chancellor plays an important role in that,” DCPS spokesman Michelle Lerner said in a statement to the AP. “However, there is a firm wall between the management of DCPS contracts and the fundraising of the D.C. Ed Fund.”

D.C. Council members are voicing concern over what the emails reveal, suggesting there could be more to this story. Henderson has yet to comment on the issue and declined to be interviewed by the AP.

“I think it’s highly irregular and improper,” Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh told the AP.

A whistle blower exposed the fraud perpetuated by Chartwells in 2013, but was subsequently fired by Henderson. Chartwells was sued for $19.4 million in a lawsuit over the fraud, which exposed deplorable food service operations in DCPS. The whistle blower settled with the city for $450,000, but Chartwells managed to hang onto their contract.

Henderson asked for the $100,000 donation after the whistle blower exposed the fraud, reports The Washington Post. Chartwells is being paid $32 million to provide food to DCPS this year.

Chartwells came under scrutiny again in early April after a fresh investigation conducted by D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson found that Chartwells and the DCPS neglected to make the necessary changes to the derelict system. The audit revealed broken equipment, wasteful spending and cafeterias in violation of fire codes.

DCPS is actively seeking a new food services contract for the 2016-2017 calendar year. Parents and Council members are concerned as Sodexo Inc., another national supplier with a similar history of lawsuits, is expected to win the contract bid in a process critics say is being conducted behind closed doors.

Rob Jaber, director of food and nutrition for DCPS, is heavily involved in the process with Council member David Grosso and is a former Chartwells employee. Council sources say officials leading the contract bid are disingenuous and do not have the best interests of the DCPS food service program at heart.

“Sometimes you have to accept their word,” Council member Cheh told Washington City Paper. “Until I see evidence to the contrary, I’m not going to make any accusations.”

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