The chancellor of Washington's public schools asked a food-service contractor for a $100,000 contribution to a Kennedy Center gala honoring teachers weeks after the company was accused in a whistleblower lawsuit of cheating the city out of millions of dollars, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.
The messages, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shed new light on dealings between school leaders and a contractor that, according to court documents, cheated the system out of $19 million and served spoiled food to city students. The contractor, Chartwells, is still serving food in schools, although the system plans to select a new vendor.
After the lawsuit was filed, Chartwells and its local partner, Thompson Hospitality, gave $25,000 to support the black-tie gala, according to records from the D.C. Public Education Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for schools and organizes the $700,000 event. The emails show the companies made the contribution after Chancellor Kaya Henderson asked Thompson Hospitality's president to give $100,000 to the event.
City ethics rules generally prohibit city employees from soliciting money, including charitable contributions, from companies that do business with the city. The rules are meant to prevent the appearance of "pay to play" politics in which contractors get preferential treatment in exchange for gifts or campaign contributions. The D.C. Council has established exceptions for fundraising by the chancellor, although they don't address D.C. Public Education Fund donations.
"The D.C. Ed Fund does its best to attract donors to the event, and the chancellor plays an important role in that," school system spokeswoman Michelle Lerner said in a statement. "However, there is a firm wall between the management of DCPS contracts and the fundraising of the D.C. Ed Fund."
D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, who has investigated the school system's dealings with Chartwells, said she's troubled by the timing and amount of Henderson's request.
"I think it's highly irregular and improper,'' Cheh said.
The whistleblower lawsuit against Chartwells was filed in July 2013 and shared with school system attorneys the following month. On Sept. 16, 2013, Henderson asked Thompson Hospitality President Warren Thompson for the contribution, according to the emails.
"I look forward to receiving the sponsorship information for the event at the Kennedy Center," Thompson wrote.
"I'm so pleased that you're willing to support us," Henderson wrote back six minutes later.
Henderson emailed later that day to clarify how much she was seeking. "Warren, we're hoping you come in at A Round of Applause, as we'd love to have a dozen of your team members able to share in celebrating the teachers they support every day," she wrote.
"A Round of Applause" refers to a $100,000 contribution. Chartwells and Thompson ended up giving $25,000, or a "Supportive Salute."
In an Oct. 3 email, Henderson thanked Thompson and invited him to attend the gala. "You rock!" she wrote.
Chartwells and Thompson gave another $25,000 to the following gala, in Jan. 2015, records show.
Thompson said in an emailed statement that the companies were "proud to have supported the Standing Ovation for D.C. Teachers." He didn't respond to follow-up questions about the amount and timing of the contribution.
The AP requested all emails between Henderson and Thompson. Nowhere in the correspondence do they mention the whistleblower lawsuit or Chartwells' poor performance.
In June 2015, Chartwells' parent company -- Compass Group USA, based in Charlotte, North Carolina -- agreed to pay $19.4 million to settle the lawsuit, which included claims that it had cheated the city through price-gouging and fraud, deliberately stockpiled food and allowed it to rot, and served spoiled food in cafeterias. Despite the settlement, Chartwells' contract was renewed. The company is being paid $32 million to serve food this school year.
Compass Group also paid $18 million in 2012 to settle similar claims in New York.
The lawsuit in the District was filed by the school system's former food-service director, Jeffrey Mills., Henderson fired him in early 2013 after he repeatedly pointed out Chartwells' practices. Mills also sued for wrongful termination. The school system agreed to pay him $450,000 -- nearly three times his salary.
Other school system contractors that have contributed to the gala include Children's National Medical Center, FedEx, Scholastic and the Washington Post Co.
Sodexo, a Chartwells rival that is bidding on the new food-service contract, also has sponsored the gala, with $10,000 contributions in 2013 and 2015. Lerner acknowledged in a statement that Henderson had asked for money from other city contractors, saying "the chancellor reaches out to all our education partners to support Standing Ovation."
Billed as a celebration of the school system's best teachers, the Kennedy Center gala also lets Henderson promote her school-reform efforts, including high-stakes teacher evaluations that are tied, in part, to student test scores. The honored teachers, who receive $230,000 in cash prizes, are judged as "highly effective" under the evaluation system. Henderson has fired hundreds of teachers deemed ineffective.
Henderson has led D.C. public schools for five years after succeeding the polarizing Michelle Rhee. Henderson's less confrontational style has helped her remain through two mayoral administrations and build a national reputation among education-reform advocates. Students have seen steady, if slow, improvements on standardized tests during Henderson's tenure, but the gap between the performances of black and white students has widened.
Henderson has repeatedly characterized food service as a distraction from her goals of improving academic performance, saying it's not a "core competency'' of the school system. During Mills' time as food-service director, he argued that the system could save money and serve more nutritious meals if it took food service back in-house, but Henderson resisted those suggestions.