Fired charter school head, under investigation for theft, found new executive job

Fired charter school head, under investigation for theft, found new executive job
Published: Nov. 19, 2013 at 10:53 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 20, 2013 at 2:55 PM HST
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Jeff Piontek
Jeff Piontek

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The fired former head of a Waipahu charter school, who was able to find a new job as an education executive even while under criminal investigation by the Hawaii Attorney General's office, is asking for reduced bail.

Jeffrey Piontek, 47, has been held at the men's central jail in Los Angeles since he was arrested in Santa Monica Oct. 21. Piontek has been charged by the Hawaii Attorney General's office with stealing more than $150,000 from Hawaii Technology Academy before he was fired as head of the charter school almost two years ago.

Piontek's attorney Marcus Sierra has asked for his $500,000 bail to be lowered.

In a court filing, Sierra said it "defies common sense and reason for the state to imply that these unproven allegations make Mr. Piontek a danger to the community and/or a flight risk when the state is responsible for the two-year delay in charging this case."

Hawaii News Now first reported questionable spending by Piontek and an Attorney General's investigation targeting him in February of 2012. In spite of that probe, he was hired by a company called Academic Advantage as chief operating officer for its online division earlier this year.

He moved to Los Angeles in April and headed efforts to teach advanced placement and other courses online to students across the country.

In an Oct. 29 letter filed with circuit court in Honolulu, Academic Advantage CEO Mark Beroomkim asked for Piontek to be released from jail immediately.

"His absence has been a true hardship for our company and we are kindly asking that he be allowed to return to fulfill his role and duties here," Beroomkim wrote. "There are several pressing projects that are awaiting his involvement and again, could severely affect our relationships with several clients."

But late Tuesday afternoon, Academic Advantage's Human Resources Director Christine Chandler-Pillett said Piontek is no longer employed by the company. She wouldn't say when that was effective or why.

When a reporter asked if the company knew Piontek was under criminal investigation when it hired him earlier this year, Chandler-Pillett said the company would not release further information unless it had a signed consent form from Piontek, who is in jail.

In his letter to the court, Beroomkim said the company worked with an executive recruiting firm and engaged in "a thorough and intense hiring process" for Piontek's position before hiring him.  Beroomkim did not return a phone message left on his personal cell phone Tuesday afternoon.

In a court filing, the Hawaii Attorney General's office said Piontek lied to the  New York City Department of Education when he claimed he wasn't under investigation in August and September of this year.  According to a letter submitted by the education department in New York City, Academic Advantage answered "no" when asked if any of its managers had been investigated by a government agency. The question was part of routine screening of all contractors, the education officials said.  Piontek knew he was under investigation because he had, through a former attorney, refused to answer questions from a Hawaii Attorney General's investigator, according to court documents.

In a court filing, Deputy Attorney General Albert Cook said Piontek has "shown a pattern and practice of dishonesty and deception."  Given the serious nature of his crimes and potential sentence of 35 years in prison and more than $150,000 in restitution, Cook said the $500,000 bail is "appropriate."

Cook also claimed that Piontek improperly spoke to state witnesses about the case.

In addition, Cook said Piontek lied to former Attorney General Mark Bennett, who was investigating the case for Piontek's employer, K-12 Incorporated. Cook said Piontek falsely told Bennett he had not visited the school after he had been instructed not to enter HTA property. He later admitted he had entered school grounds with Ana Matsumoto, the school's vice principal, after being instructed not to.

Cook said Piontek stole money from the Waipahu charter school for international trips to Australia, Germany, Qatar, and New Zealand.  Pinotek also improperly spent Hawaii Technology Academy money on trips to Alaska,  New York, Las Vegas, Orlando, Chicago, and San Francisco, Cook said in court filings.

A financial statement first reported by Hawaii News Now in February 2012 showed the school spent $107,860 on travel, including airfare, hotels, meals and car rents in the year that ended July 1, 2011. Most of that travel money was for Piontek and Matsumoto, who often traveled together, sources said.

Matsumoto was placed on leave from HTA in late 2011 and also left the school's employment.

Sources at Academic Advantage said she was working with Piontek in the online division of the company and living in the Los Angeles area.  Company employees said they wondered why they hadn't seen Piontek in the office since late October but then received a link to Hawaii News Now's story about his arrest and recognized both Piontek and Matsumoto as their co-workers.

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