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Cortines delays iPad program in face of FBI investigation

Vanessa Romo | December 2, 2014



Ray Cortines

Ramon Cortines

* UPDATED

LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines said today he’s delaying the district’s iPad program in the wake of an investigation into it by the FBI.

Agents with the FBI visited the offices of LA Unified headquarters yesterday and seized 20 boxes of documents “having to do with the the procedures for purchasing of iPads and content” according to Cortines, who added that the FBI’s arrival came as a complete surprise.

A district official who asked not to be identified said the the action by the FBI came at the behest of board member Monica Ratliff, who chaired the Common Core Technology Project committee from the early stages of the iPad program. She was also in charge when questions arose about the role former superintendent John Deasy played in contracts’ being awarded to Apple for iPads and to Pearson for software.

Deasy was cleared of any wrong-doing by the district’s Inspector General and by the LA County District Attorney. But after emails between Deasy and a deputy superintendent, Jaime Aquino, and Apple and Pearson were made public, Ratliff, who is a lawyer, asked that the district inspector general have a second look.

When asked about her role in the FBI’s interest in the iPad program, Ratliff’s chief of staff, David Zlotchew, declined to comment.

Deasy told LA School Report that he has has “no idea”  why the FBI has taken interest in the district’s iPad program. He also said, “I have not been contacted at all by anyone. ”

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said the action taken by the FBI was not the result of a search warrant and that the FBI would typically confirm the existence of a court-issued search warrant. She declined further comment.

“Due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, the FBI has no comment at this time,” Eimiller said.

Thom Mrozek, a Department of Justice spokesman, declined to comment.

Late today, the district released a letter from the FBI, saying the material was being sought through a subpoena to present to a grand jury as part of a “criminal investigation.”

Although the appearance of federal agents was unannounced, Cortines says the US Attorney’s office contacted him by letter about a week ago. However, he would not expand on its contents, saying only, “I gave it to [General Counsel] David Holmquist and asked him to share the contents of it with the board.”

Cortines said he “did not know” if the US Attorney issued a subpoena for the documents but said, “They came with a list of what they wanted and [Facilities Director] Mark Hovatter supplied that information.”

Cortines said the district would cooperate fully with the investigation.

United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union, which is attempting to negotiate a new bargaining agreement with the district, was quick in applauding the FBI’s action — and blaming Deasy for the continuing problems facing the district over iPads.

“From the very beginning John Deasy’s billion dollar iPad project was flawed,” the union said in a statement. “Questions were raised publically (sic) about the bidding process and the former Superintendent’s secrecy when dealing with Apple. Now the FBI reportedly is investigating and has, according to the District, seized documents related to the iPad contracts. While UTLA has no independent knowledge of the FBI’s action, we welcome a transparent and independent investigation into how Apple was awarded the contract.”

The statement quoted UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl, saying, “The former Superintendent cannot escape the tough questions about the ill-fated iPad project. He cannot simply resign and leave a mess for others to clean up. If this rises to the level of criminality, the former Superintendent must be held accountable for his actions.”

It wasn’t until this morning that Cortines decided to reverse his decision announced late last month to proceed with the second phase of the controversial one-to-one device program.

“I thought about it and certainly with the FBI investigation, I’m not going to continue a contract that might be questioned later,” he said.

Cortines had announced he would resume what is called Phase 2B of the rollout ten days ago, expanding the program to 27 new schools. That move came as a surprise to many after his harsh criticism of the board and Deasy for using construction bond dollars to pay for curriculum loaded onto the devices.

Under that plan students would have received iPads loaded with Pearson curriculum or Chromebooks furnished with lessons by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt by the end of February. Now they’ll have to wait until Fall 2015.

Essentially, the district is chucking the deal it has with Apple and Pearson wherein it pays about $768 per device.

“I have to put the breaks on that because I’m not using the existing facilities procurement contract. I’m asking for a new contract,” he said.

In an apologetic voice, Cortines admitted it’s been a yo-yo ride for the schools and administrators at the center of the controversy, which is why, he says, “I am meeting with all 27 principals tomorrow morning to tell them personally that I’m sorry, that I think I’m doing what is the in the best interest for the district.”

Cortines says the district still plans to buy about 20,000 testing devices in advance of the Smarter Balance exams in the spring. However, the new tablets will be purchased under the district’s “Perennial Apple Contract,”  which has been in effect for the last 20 years.

The Bond Oversight Committee last month agreed to disburse another $13 million to buy a combination of iPads, keyboards, Chromebooks and device carts for the testing. The district’s plan is to spend that money, as well as an additional $9.2 million it has in reserves from the last batch of approved bond funds, to equip schools with the devices by January.


* Adds information about Monica Ratliff’s role in the iPad program and comments from John Deasy. It also clarifies that the district is delaying, not halting, the iPad program

Craig Clough contributed reporting to this story. 

 

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