PITTSBURGH — Invoices obtained by 11 Investigates reporter Rick Earle though a Right to Know request have revealed some shocking new information about the cost of the investigation into a trip to Cuba by Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet and some other school administrators.
The investigation by a private law firm cost district taxpayers approximately $142,000, while the trip didn’t cost taxpayers a dime. It was paid for by a nonprofit organization that had a contract with the district to promote science and math educational experiences.
"It's alarming, disheartening. I think our children deserve a whole lot better than this," said Jammal Craig, the executive director the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network.
Earle questioned Craig, asking, “Do you think this is a waste of taxpayer money?”
Craig responded, "This amount is definitely a waste."
Hamlet has come under fire for no bid contracts, consulting fees and now, the trip to Cuba.
“Everything that went around this in terms of the media was that we were going to get to this. There was a smoking gun and were were going to get to some scandal - and we just didn’t get to that scandal,” said Craig.
But school Solicitor Ira Weiss defended the cost of the investigation.
"It was worth it, Weiss told Earle during an exclusive interview at the Board of Education offices in Oakland.
Weiss said he initially launched an investigation after learning from media reports that Hamlet and several other administrators had taken an unapproved trip to Cuba paid for The Flying Classroom, a nonprofit organization that provided the district with science and math programs.
The contract expired several months before the trip to Cuba.
Weiss told Target 11 that the district approved and paid for Hamlet and the others to go Miami to review education programs, but he said the District had no idea about the trip to Cuba, which he says requires board approval because it was outside of the United States.
Weiss said he also discovered something potentially more troubling during the early stages of the investigation.
"There appeared to be a rather coordinated effort to not to have this trip revealed to the board," Weiss said.
To avoid any conflict of interest, Weiss said the Board voted to hire a private outside law firm to conduct the investigation.
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Former city of Pittsburgh Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge was paid $275 per hour for her work. Her assistants at the law firm of Pietragallo, Gordon, Alfano, Bosick and Raspanti were paid either $225 or $100 per hour for their work. Earle contacted Ridge, but she declined to comment on the investigation.
Weiss conceded to Earle that it was expensive and he said the district attempted to control costs, but it was a very extensive investigation.
“It was expensive. We closely reviewed those bills we attempted to get cooperation to minimize time, but there was an enormous number of documents to secure,” said Weiss.
Critics contend that the investigation could have been handled internally and saved taxpayers money.
Weiss declined to discuss whether anyone was disciplined as a result of the investigation. He did confirm that some of the administrators who went on the trip on no longer with the district. He said they did not leave because of the investigation.
Weiss said that the investigation examined whether the trip violated district policy barring employees from accepting gifts. He also said there was evidence that the district did not receive all of the programs and benefits outlined in $84,000 contract with the Flying Classroom. 11 Investigates contacted the Flying Classroom and hasn’t heard back yet.
“I think the district got value out of the investment. Again, we are very conscious of cost, but as we learned investigations at state and national level take time and money,” said Weiss.
Hamlet declined to comment on the cost of the investigation or any other aspect of the probe.
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