Criminal convictions and past imprisonment of Michael M. Sharpe, the CEO of a charter school organization that receives millions in taxpayer funds, are worrying Hartford and state officials – who said Wednesday they hadn't known of his record and now want answers.
"I take this very seriously and I'm very troubled by it," city school board Chairman Richard Wareing said Wednesday afternoon.
"We are concerned by this news. There clearly are important questions for Dr. Sharpe to address," echoed Kelly Donnelly, spokeswoman for Commissioner Stefan Pryor of the state Department of Education.
One issue is whether the state's requirements for criminal background checks are strong enough. "We will be reviewing both this case and our procedures," Donnelly said.
The questions arise as Sharpe's organization – Family Urban Schools of Excellence, or FUSE – faces heavy criticism from the Hartford school system over its two-year management of Milner Elementary School. There are accusations of nepotism and concerns over Milner jobs having been offered to people with criminal backgrounds. The Courant reported on the complaints Tuesday.
Tuesday night – after hearing about part of Sharpe's criminal record from a person Wareing described as a "Good Samaritan" – the school board put off a vote on a proposal that would strip many of FUSE's responsibilities at Milner, but still give the charter group $215,000 in state funds to provide a few services in the upcoming 2014-15 school year.
The board expects to make a decision soon on whether to terminate the relationship, but first, Wareing said, the questions about Sharpe need to be addressed.
Sharpe, 62, has been convicted twice on criminal charges. He pleaded guilty in Connecticut Superior Court to two counts of third-degree forgery in 1985 and agreed to pay two fines of $1,000 each. Then after moving to California, he pleaded guilty in 1989 to federal charges of embezzling more than $100,000 and conspiring to defraud the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, or BART, where he had served as the public transportation agency's real estate manager.
Sharpe served 2½ years of a 5-year federal prison sentence, then went back to prison in the early 1990s for a shorter time after a finding that he violated his probation, he confirmed when reached by phone on Wednesday.
"I can come up with a thousand excuses, but the only reality is, it was an untruthful time in my life and it led to some very devastating consequences," Sharpe said. "I was able to really do some deep reflection, and getting support from some important people in my life, I was able to get that right and get back to the kind of person I'd always been before that."
Sharpe said his criminal history "has not been a secret. The state has never asked and it's never been a question. But it's never been a secret. I've had public speaking engagements where I've gone into, you know, how you can make mistakes in your life and how you have to work really hard."
Wareing said that neither he nor other board members, Mayor Pedro Segarra, and top-level Hartford school administrators knew about Sharpe's criminal past until after Tuesday's call by the unidentified "Good Samaritan" — and it bothers them.
"Do people change over the course of 25 years? Sometimes," Wareing said. But he said the matter has become "a trust issue ... This is not the sort of thing you want to hear about from third parties."
The influence of Sharpe's organization extends far beyond its assistance in the management of Milner School in Hartford. It also operates three Jumoke Academy charter schools in Hartford; manages Dunbar Elementary School in Bridgeport; and received state approval in April to operate the new Booker T. Washington Academy charter school that is scheduled to open soon in New Haven.
In addition, FUSE has received approval to run at least one charter school in Louisiana.
Donnelly, the state education department's spokeswoman, made her comments in a prepared statement and did not address questions that included whether criminal issues involving Sharpe could jeopardize any of its heavily state-financed operations in Connecticut.
Asked if Pryor, the education commissioner, had been aware of Sharpe's criminal history before this week, she said no. She said she didn't know of anyone else at the department who knew.
Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said the governor also hadn't known about Sharpe's criminal record.
Donnelly said that "Jumoke has been subject to annual independent audits to ensure the presence of strong financial practices and policies," with no problems uncovered. Also, at the Jumoke charter schools "there are contractual requirements for background checks for all staff who work primarily with students," she said.
Asked if Sharpe fell into that category, she didn't answer yes or no, but said: "That is a determination … for the two parties of the agreement, the local school district and Jumoke, to decide."
There was no indication that any state or city official or agency ever checked into Sharpe's criminal background, which is as follows:
--In 1985, Sharpe entered a guilty plea in state Superior Court to two counts of third-degree forgery under the Alford doctrine, which meant he didn't admit to the charges but conceded the probability that he would be convicted. He allegedly falsified documents used to get a $415,000 city of Hartford rehabilitation loan to redevelop a 24-unit apartment building at 105 Enfield St. Sharpe had been charged in 1984 with 11 counts of larceny, forgery and issuing bad checks; nine were dismissed in a plea bargain that called for the fines but no jail time.
--He then moved to Oakland, Calif., and began working for the transit agency, BART. His 1989 conviction came after Sharpe conspired with another person in 1986 to buy a piece of land in Oakland for BART at an inflated price and to keep the extra money, according to a 1989 Associated Press story. Sharpe allegedly took kickbacks from two contractors and a building inspector, the AP story said.
Sharpe said Wednesday that he had never talked to the governor or Pryor about his background, but added "it was the worst-kept secret in America because I was constantly, when the circumstance presented itself, talking about it and I was not shy about it."
He added: "I was proud of my accomplishments since then and I would talk about the devastation during that time and how getting back and doing things that are helpful to society is much more sustaining."
Close work associates are aware of his criminal record, Sharpe said. When he joined Jumoke Academy, the charter school founded 17 years ago by his mother, Thelma Ellis Dickerson, he said he disclosed his convictions to the charter's board of trustees. Sharpe began working at Jumoke Academy in 1998 and became CEO in 2003.
FUSE was created in 2012 as the management organization for Jumoke Academy.
In an email Wednesday evening to several of his associates in the charter school group, Sharpe said that the Courant was writing a story about his past and added: "I am requesting that several of the foundations that have been supporters of Jumoke and Fuse review the matters at hand and offer binding recommendations to our board concerning the need to appoint an interim chief officer pending a full review of the facts surrounding these issues; or they may recommend that I step down as leader and appointment of a permanent Executive Officer. I will be bound by their determination."
Sharpe's online bio on his LinkedIn page says that he "was appointed by Governor Malloy to serve on the Connecticut P-20 Commission" – a reference to the P-20 Council established by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell and then reconstituted in 2012 by Malloy to provide advice on various educational policies. But Doba said that Malloy never appointed Sharpe to the panel, adding that various organizations get a chance to place people on that panel, and Sharpe got on it that way, Doba said.
Sharpe responded that there must be a "misunderstanding" with the governor's office.