Founder of Agora Cyber Charter School accused of stealing $6.7M

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After James D. Marshall Jr. became board president of the Agora Cyber Charter School in 2007, he signed lots of documents for the school.

But last week, he told jurors in the $6.7 million fraud trial of school founder Dorothy June Brown that he did not sign a management contract with Ms. Brown's Cynwyd Group L.L.C. in 2006 -- even though his name was on it.

"That's not my signature," Mr. Marshall testified when Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank R. Costello Jr. showed him a contract dated May 10, 2006, that contained his name.

"Do you know how your signature got on this document?" Mr. Costello asked.

"I have no idea," said Mr. Marshall, who joined the board the year before he was elected president.

"To this day?" Mr. Costello asked.

"To this day," Mr. Marshall replied.

Mr. Marshall was the fifth former board member of a charter founded by Ms. Brown who has testified of doctored documents related to management contracts with companies Ms. Brown controlled.

Other former board members testified that they had not attended some meetings at which minutes indicated they had voted, but Mr. Marshall said he went to monthly board meetings.

Ms. Brown's fraud trial got underway in federal court this month. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have spend the past two weeks painting vivid -- but radically different -- portraits of the longtime educator and two former administrators.

"This is not a case about kids and schools and test scores," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joan E. Burnes told jurors at the outset. "This is a case about cheating and lying. This is a case about adults and money."

Mr. Marshall, who co-founded a nonprofit and who has marketing experience, said he was recruited to Agora's board in 2006 by a distant cousin, Anthony Smoot, who was business manager for Ms. Brown's school network.

"I was honored at the time, knowing the reputation of Dr. Brown," Mr. Marshall said.

Mr. Smoot handled finances for Ms. Brown's schools from 2001 until his 2010 firing. In March, he pleaded guilty to obstructing justice. Ms. Brown founded three elementary charters in Philadelphia -- Laboratory, Ad Prima and Planet Abacus, with a total of six campuses.

She also established Agora in 2005, but cut ties with it in 2009 as part of an agreement settling several lawsuits, including one brought by the state Department of Education.

That dispute centered on a management contract between Agora and Cynwyd Group.

Also last week, FBI Agent Robert Loughney told jurors of the four-year investigation into Ms. Brown that included several grand jury subpoenas and a 2010 search warrant served on her Bala Cynwyd business headquarters that produced 124 boxes of documents, plus data from 99 electronic devices, including hard drives, thumb drives, and CDs -- "an enormous amount of data to review."

Lawrence P. Maulo Jr., an accountant whose West Chester firm audited some of Ms. Brown's schools for years, described how his accountants spent months trying to learn about a contract between Planet Abacus and one of Ms. Brown's companies, and about a policy that let Ms. Brown and another administrator collect nearly $145,000 and $69,000, respectively, from Laboratory in 2009 for unused vacation and sick time after they retired.

The trial could last six weeks.

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