The president of the Maryland PTA is defending herself against criminal charges of theft in Maryland and Washington, D.C., as she also tries to save the embattled organization from a takeover by national PTA leaders.
The Maryland PTA, which represents tens of thousands of Maryland families, is on probation and operating under restrictions from national PTA officials after two years of allegations of mismanagement, financial problems, bylaws violations and complaints from local PTA chapters.
LaTonja Carrera, who took over the organization in November, is facing two separate theft cases, the News4 I-Team learned. Neither of those cases involve the state PTA.
Though Carrera says the personal legal battles will not impact her PTA work, parents and former PTA officials said the criminal cases against the organization’s president further endanger the future and reputation of the Maryland PTA.
According to charging documents filed in Prince George’s County district court in October, Carrera is accused of accessing the bank account and ATM card of a woman who suffers dementia, over whom Carrera was granted power of attorney last May. In a court filing, a relative of the alleged victim said Carrera made fraudulent purchases and ATM withdrawals, draining large amounts of money from the victim’s bank account. Her attorney in that case had no comment.
In a separate federal charge, the U.S. Justice Department accuses Carrera, who operated a business and rehabilitation home for disabled veterans in D.C., of illegally taking $1,500 from the bank account of one of the veterans in 2019.
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Carrera’s attorney said she has been falsely accused.
The new criminal complaints are fueling concerns among some parents that Carrera will be unable to sufficiently guide the Maryland PTA out of its current troubles.
“I was shocked, disgusted, angry,” said Bradley Shear, a PTA parent from Bethesda.
“How could we let this happen, that we have the president of the state PTA in this kind of trouble?” Shear said.
An I-Team review of hundreds of pages of civil and criminal court documents show Carrera has also faced other legal disputes involving money in the past.
Maryland PTA on Probation
The Maryland PTA was founded in the early 1900s to advocate to political leaders on education issues and to support hundreds of local PTA programs statewide. The organization collects a portion of the dues paid annually by PTA member parents.
The Maryland PTA is supposed to be governed by an unpaid board of 17 members, with a new president elected every two years during a state convention.
Headquartered in Glen Burnie, the agency has two full-time employees and serves as advocates on education issues before state and federal legislators.
Signs of trouble and dissension inside the organized surfaced in late 2019, when the then newly elected president reported finding problems at the Glen Burnie offices. In an annual report to local members, leaders of the PTA reported finding doors broken, papers shredded, vandalism and a $95,000 certificate of deposit — which had been earmarked for building emergencies and upgrades — cashed without the requisite approval of the state board.
The annual report for 2019 said the Maryland PTA’s bank balance had plummeted below zero, to a deficit of $68.16.
Meeting minutes, memos and interviews collected by the I-Team show a series of resignations, disputes and complaints from local chapters plagued the organization in early 2020.
Laura Mitchell, a professional accountant, said she joined the board in late 2019 as treasurer with hopes of helping rescue the troubled finances.
“It was a very dysfunctional, contentious board,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said there were disagreements over who should have access to the organization’s books and financial records.
“I'm an accountant,” Mitchell said. “I know the way things are supposed to work and I know that's not how they were working.”
She resigned her board position in late February 2020, months after joining.
Carrera had joined the board of directors in August 2019 and would serve as chair of the organization’s health committee. She helped operate a food drive, collected a state grant money, and gathered food donations and gift cards for families in summer 2020.
Amid several disagreements, a quick series of resignations from board members occurred in April 2020. Though new to the organization’s board, Carrera said she noticed infighting between state PTA leaders and some local chapter leaders. She said those relationships would deteriorate further through the year.
“I actually feel like I'm back in high school,” Carrera said. “You know, when you're in high school and you have the mean girls, that's what it simply feels like.”
In May 2020, the National PTA put the Maryland chapter on probation. In its letter to the Maryland PTA, National PTA president Leslie Boggs cited a series of complaints from local PTA chapters. The letter said complaints included condoning rude and disrespectful behavior and communication toward local PTA leaders, lack of regular communications with local PTA councils, frequent and high turnover among board members, violations of bylaws, and preventing board members from fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities.
One of the conditions of probation requires a team of people designated by the National PTA to review and approve decisions and operations of the state PTA.
“We cannot send out anything to (our local) units without National PTA approving it. So anything that we send out has to be approved by our support team,” Carrera said.
The organization will remain on probation through at least March 31 when the National PTA is expected to announce the next step, the I-Team learned.
The 17-person Maryland PTA board has shrunk to just four members.
At least one group of local PTA organizations decided to cease sending dues payments to the Maryland PTA in autumn 2020, the I-Team learned, instead opting to send money to the national organization.
Multiple sources said the National PTA would likely take control of oversight of Maryland’s hundreds of local PTA chapters, if the Maryland PTA is decertified for failing to make required changes.
In a statement to the I-Team, the National PTA said, “National PTA continues to work with Maryland PTA leadership on solutions to help them come into compliance with the National PTA Standards of Affiliation Policy. National PTA remains committed to having a statewide PTA in Maryland to support all the council and local PTAs in the state. Our goal continues to be to get everyone back focused on our association’s mission of ensuring that all children reach their fullest potential.”
Maryland PTA President Facing Criminal Charges in Separate Cases
“You know at the end of the day, everyone is innocent until proven guilty," Carrera told the I-Team when asked about the recent charges against her.
The U.S. Justice Department charged Carrera in December with stealing from a veteran for whom she provided a group home service. In 2019, Carrera operated M&M Residential Services, a residential facility for people with mental health needs.
D.C. investigators allege she took money from one of the veteran’s bank accounts and used the money for her own purchases. A Justice Department statement about the case said, “Carrera used the account of one of the facility residents — a 73-year-old veteran — to pay her own personal bills. Carrera used $1,524.36 from the veteran, whose sole sources of income were benefits from the Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs.”
Carrera declined comment on the case. Her defense attorney, Charles Tucker, said he could not talk about her pending cases, but added, “I'm proud to represent somebody who's been falsely accused.”
In October 2020, the niece of a Mitchellville woman accused Carrera of unlawfully making withdrawals from the woman’s bank account. In a complaint filed with the Prince George’s County District Court, the woman’s relative said Carrera assumed power of attorney in May 2020 over the alleged victim, who suffers dementia. The complaint said Carrera took control of the woman’s bank account and ATM cards and used the money for personal purchases.
Hope McCullough, who said she knows both Carrera and the alleged victim of the theft, called the case “tragic.”
“The truth is going to come out,” McCullough said. “Justice is going to be served.”
Carrera has not yet entered a plea in the case, as COVID-19 continues to stall the processing of criminal cases in Maryland courts. Carrera would not comment specifically on the case.
During an interview with the I-Team, she said, "That has nothing to do with my ability to do what I need to do to bring Maryland PTA back on track.”
LaTonja Carrera's Legal History
Though her criminal cases are still pending, Carrera has already defended herself in a series of other criminal and civil cases, according to the I-Team’s review.
In 2004, Carrera pleaded guilty to a theft charge involving misuse of bank checks in Washington, D.C., according to court filings reviewed by the I-Team. A judge sentenced her to three years’ probation and 200 hours of community service, the court filings said.
In 2015, while operating another residential home for disabled veterans in Temple Hills, Maryland, Carrera was accused of improperly evicting a veteran.
Clarence Smith-Bey, a former U.S. Marine, sued the business, Peaceful Haven, operated by LaTonja Carrera.
In his suit, Smith-Bey argued that he had made rent and security deposit payments to Carrera. The suit said the locks were nevertheless changed and his items were removed from the home in 2014. His suit also alleged electric and water were cut off for a week during his time in the house. The lawsuit said Smith Bey “experienced poor housing conditions, including cockroaches, ants and other vermin.”
Smith-Bey won a $120,000 judgment from a Prince George’s County judge, according to court filings obtained by the I-Team. His civil attorney said the business was later dissolved and the payment was not made before Smith-Bey died.
Smith-Bey’s widow said the experience rendered Clarence Smith-Bey homeless and pushed him back into drug addiction.
“It was devastating to me,” Virginia Smith-Bey said. “It was heartbreaking that my husband had to go through this."
Court filings and attorneys involved in the case said another veteran also sued Peaceful Haven in 2014 for breach of contract and secured a judgment against the company. Court filings reviewed by the I-Team do not specify if the judgment was paid.
Carrera declined to comment on the Smith-Bey case or Peaceful Haven during her interview with the I-Team.
In 2016, Carrera filed for federal bankruptcy protection. An attorney for Smith-Bey filed motions in the bankruptcy case seeking money from Smith-Bey’s $120,000 judgment in his case against Peaceful Haven. The attorney cited the bankruptcy filing as one of the reasons Smith-Bey did not receive the money.
According to court filings reviewed by the I-Team, Carrera did not successfully secure bankruptcy protection. A federal court trustee ruled against her in 2019.
In 2019, there was another legal challenge for Carrera and her business, M&M Residential Services. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine filed a motion in D.C. Superior Court accusing M&M Residential Services of failing to properly pay wages to at least three of its workers. Court dockets show a judge ordered M&M Residential pay approximately $18,000 in damages to the workers in January 2020.
Carrera would not comment on the unpaid wages claims.
Future of Maryland PTA
Carrera said she has no access to the finances at the Maryland PTA, which is operating with at least 13 board vacancies. Finances are administered by the board treasurer and professional staff, she said.
“I have no access to the account whatsoever,” Carrera said.
In a statement to the I-Team, the National PTA said, “National PTA has requested confirmation of the financial processes currently in place and has made recommendations to ensure the assets of Maryland PTA. National PTA reviews the financial reports and bank statements when provided and created a process for local PTAs to submit dues directly to National PTA. Maryland PTA still controls the finances of the association.”
The Maryland PTA remains on probationary status under the National PTA. A “support team” of appointees from the National PTA continue to oversee Maryland PTA operations, according to Carrera and her attorney, Charles Tucker.
Carrera said the organization is attempting to set up dates for a convention and elections later this year. In prior years, those events have been held in the summer.
Tucker said, “Maryland PTA, thanks for the current board's efforts, are working to right the ship, so to speak. And they have been working diligently from day one.”
And some parents think the president is making a difference.
“She’s trying to unify people,” said Lisa Robinson, a Riverdale PTA member. “She put herself on the line.”
Other local PTA parents told the I-Team they are hoping for the state PTA to be stabilized and resume larger operations to help school parents and teachers. Shear, the PTA member from Bethesda said, “The PTAs are just wonderful organizations, and every school that has an active PTA in general sees their students do much better.
“When you have parents and teachers working together to help students, it really helps make the community stronger and helps kids learn better,” Shear said.
And as for any parents concerned about Carrera's leadership, she told the I-Team, "I'm going to still continue to do my duties and my job as Maryland PTA president, whether they're on board or not."
"So, if I'm doing everything I'm supposed to, as far as, you know, as president for Maryland State PTA, then that's all that matters,” she added. “If I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do, then yes, you can have your issues and say whatever."
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper.