no one saw any signs

Fake special ed vendors stole $1.5 million from city, probe finds

Two men used shell companies and forged signatures to charge the Department of Education for sign language services that students didn’t need, an investigation found. The fraud ran for more than two school years and cost the city at least $1.5 million.

The brazen scheme involved claiming payment for services to students who were not enrolled in city schools and, in some cases, offered as proof that services had been provided the forged signatures of people who were retired or even deceased. In one instance, the city paid more than $100,000 over an eight-month period for a student who had left the school system a decade earlier. In another, the city handed out $187,200 in payments that were authorized by someone who had died “several years ago.”

Today, authorities arrested one of the men involved, Nelson Ruiz, while his collaborator, William Cruz, remains at large, said a spokeswoman for the Special Commissioner of Investigation, which conducted the probe.

Special education costs have skyrocketed in recent years and though the sign language fraud doesn’t begin to explain the amount of money that pays for special education servies, it suggests that the ways outside providers  are paid is highly-vulnerable to fraud.

Last summer, the education department created a unit specifically to root out fraud in special education spending and officials said today that it was the work of this unit that eventually prompted the investigation.

Investigators opened the case in February after a department official questioned the authenticity of billing documents that had been submitted by a sign language company called Bilingual Words in Motion.

Eventually, investigators found that a total of five companies, all owned by either Ruiz or Cruz, were swindling the department of payments for sign language services. The companies used the names of 10 students and listed them on forged disability forms to secure payments for services that not only weren’t being provided, but weren’t even needed by the students.

The fraud was apparently able to take place because of shortcomings in the office of Non-Public Schools Payables, which pays independent vendors to provide services to students with disabilities that the department can’t otherwise offer.

Before it authorizes payments, the office first reviews a document — called a ‘related service authorization form — that gives permission to parents to obtain services from an approved independent vendor. These forms included signatures from both parents and education department employees, which Ruiz and Cruz were forging.

Investigators found many of these forms were also outdated, contained wrong addresses, and were issued out of the wrong school district. But when office employees reviewed them, they didn’t pick up on the discrepancies. And  the office also doesn’t have access to a student’s individualized education plan, so they were unable to verify if the student should have been receiving the outside services.

If they had been able to, they would have found some stark discrepancies. Of the ten students detailed in the investigation, most of them didn’t need sign language instruction from an outside vendor. Some didn’t have hearing disabilities at all and three of them were no longer part of the city school system.

Cruz and Ruiz were paid a total of $1,524,160 during the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, and while the scope of the investigation only went back to 2010, the pair’s theft could have been closer to $4 million. The investigators’ report says that some of the same companies were paid an additional $2.3 million by the Department of Education prior to the 2010-2011 school year.

Ruiz and Cruz technically owned all five of the companies between them, but when investigators began checking up on the companies, there was little evidence that any business was being conducted. None of the companies had offices and their addresses usually linked back to standalone mailboxes. An address for one of the companies, Related Services Solutions, matched Ruiz’s residence in Pennsylvania.

Investigators also looked into the companies’ bank records and found none of them did any business outside of the combined $1.5 million that the city was paying to them.

City officials downplayed the findings from the investigation and said that the education department had already put in place controls to improve how vendors are vetted and how its invoice system is monitors. In a statement, Chancellor Dennis Walcott lauded education department employees who worked to uncover the fraud.

“I want to thank the employees who have been working so diligently over the last year to root out fraud and ensure our neediest students get the services they deserve,” Walcott said. “We will not  allow corrupt businesses to defraud our system and prey on our children.”

The investigation is ongoing and there are still many unanswered questions about how Ruiz and Cruz could had carried out their fraud.

For instance, Cruz apparently used an alias — Bill Chacon — to serve as a special education advocate in impartial hearings. Cruz attended hearings for five of the students who are listed in the report, but it’s unclear how they found the students to claim payments for. It’s even  some of those students did not have any disability. Principals of some of the students who had hearing disabilities told investigators that their services were provided in the school.

The investigation has been handed over to Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Ruiz and Cruz- SCI Report 8 17 12 (1)

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.