The principal of a celebrated Baltimore high school has pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal government of nearly $2 million he received in a previous job to feed disadvantaged children, but used instead for other purposes, including leasing luxury cars and buying jewelry.
Between 2007 and 2010, federal prosecutors say, Frederick Douglass High School principal Antonio Hurt submitted documents to a federal program in which he intentionally misstated the number of children and meals eligible for reimbursement in day care centers he owned and operated in Georgia.
Hurt, who has been credited with turning around the long-troubled high school with the help of a multimillion-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education, pleaded guilty Wednesday in a U.S. District Court in Georgia to a single count of federal program fraud.
Hurt, who was appointed to lead Douglass in 2011, faces up to five years in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for June 18.
"This critically important program provides basic sustenance for those most in need," Sally Quillian Yates, the U.S. attorney for northern Georgia, said in a statement. "Instead of paying for school day nutrition, he used the money to expand his day care business, lease luxury cars, buy jewelry, and pay for other personal expenses."
Hurt has also been ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution to Georgia's Department of Early Care and Learning, the state agency responsible for disbursing the reimbursement money to child care centers.
The Baltimore school system said Thursday that it had accepted Hurt's resignation. Officials said they were auditing all activity at Frederick Douglass for any red flags.
Hurt was hired to lead the school at a salary of $136,981.
At Frederick Douglass, Hurt was responsible for at least $4.2 million in federal school improvement grants, which are awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to help struggling schools implement reforms.
"District office staff will work intensively with the school leadership team to maintain Douglass High School's trajectory of improvement," the school system said in a statement. "An interim school leader for the 2014-15 school year will be identified by July 1, and a full search for a permanent principal will begin."
Hurt's attorneys said his transgressions in Georgia had no bearing on his commitment to his role and responsibilities in Baltimore.
In a statement, attorneys Alan Dial and Dan Sale said Hurt "is extremely proud of the work he has done at Douglass, and of its students, faculty, and supporters."
"Dr. Hurt takes full responsibility for his actions and hopes that his earlier mistakes do not reflect poorly on Frederick Douglass High School," they said. "Indeed, the conduct to which Dr. Hurt pleaded guilty occurred over four years ago, and had absolutely nothing to do with Dr. Hurt's exemplary work at Frederick Douglass."
A spokeswoman for the school system said Hurt underwent vetting and a reference check when he was hired. She said the school district was not aware of the federal investigation until this week.
Hurt, 38, was CEO of Bright Star Early Learning Center, which owned and operated day care centers in metropolitan Atlanta and elsewhere in Georgia. He also served as a principal in Georgia.
It was the second time that a Baltimore administrator has faced federal charges related to financial dealings in Georgia.
Former chief information officer Jerome Oberlton pleaded guilty in January to taking $60,000 in kickbacks while overseeing technology in the Atlanta public schools, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. As part of the plea deal, the newspaper reported, he is to serve three and a half years in prison and repay $735,000 to the school district.
Prosecutors say Hurt initiated an elaborate scheme to defraud the federal government in 2006.
That year, they said in a release, he arranged for the Bright Star day care centers to participate in the Child & Adult Care Food Program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program established under the National School Lunch Act of 1964.
The federal program partially reimburses day care centers for the cost of serving breakfast, lunch and snacks to low-income children.
From October 2007 through January 2010, prosecutors said, Hurt filed millions of dollars in reimbursement claims to the CACFP program in which he "intentionally misstated the number of eligible students, meals, and other information."
"As a result, the [Georgia] Department of Early Care & Learning issued fraudulently inflated reimbursement funds to an account that Hurt controlled," prosecutors said. "Hurt then issued the expected payments to the unsuspecting day care centers, and retained the fraudulently inflated portion for himself, amounting to approximately $1.9 million over a two-year period."
They said he used the money to expand and fund the operation of his day care business, obtaining multimillion-dollar acquisition and development loans to build new day care centers, and "to live beyond his means."
Hurt's attorneys said "mitigating factors" yet to be revealed would "shed a different light on this story." They said they hoped the public would "refrain from passing any judgment on Dr. Hurt's character and passion for educating children until all of the facts are put in context."
During Hurt's tenure, Frederick Douglass High School made marked progress in increasing graduation rates and test scores and decreasing suspensions and dropout rates.
The U.S. Department of Education has highlighted Douglass and Hurt as an example of turnaround efforts officials say are taking place across the country. The school hosted U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in January.
City leaders expressed the hope that Douglass could maintain the momentum they say Hurt built in the past few years.
"He provided those children with a dream," said City Councilman Nick Mosby.
Mosby said Hurt had succeeded in bringing a "campus-like" mentality and school spirit back to the student body. "It's going to be very difficult task to find someone to fill that chasm that's going to be voided by his departure.