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No charges are filed in voucher inquiry

Published August 13, 2003

Prosecutors will not file criminal charges against a man accused of mishandling state voucher money at private schools around Florida, including one in St. Petersburg.

An investigator with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Pensacola wrote that the inquiry was "partially hindered" because of the vague laws governing the use of state vouchers.

"Maybe this isn't the best way to do things (in terms of managing a school)," said assistant state attorney Gerry Champagne, "but you have to look at the statute, and we decided we couldn't bring charges."

Though the joint investigation by the FDLE and the state attorney reached few conclusions, one of the subjects of the investigation said he sees the result as vindication.

"I don't think it was fair, but sometimes that happens in America," said Art Rocker, who runs a company that manages private schools. "Sometimes it takes time for the truth to come out. Thank God it's over."

Rocker characterized his accusers as disgruntled former employees.

The investigation began early last year after former employees at Rocker's schools sent a packet of information and allegations to law enforcement. They alleged that Rocker claimed schools he managed had been in existence for longer than they had, that specialized services were promised but not provided, that teachers had to provide food for kids, and that cash was being paid to parents for unknown reasons.

An FDLE investigator wrote that the allegations "did not appear criminal in nature but instead concerned ethical behavior, questionable business practices and employer/employee labor relations." The summary said laws regarding the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities made it difficult to know if laws were broken.

For instance, although private schools register with the state, "there is no audit or inspection ... to ascertain if the completed survey is accurate or truthful." State law also lays out several requirements for private schools to participate in the state's McKay Scholarship program, but "there are no criminal penalties incorporated into this statute for violation of any of its requirements," the report read.

Rocker's management company still works with private schools around the state, including one in Pensacola and one in Tampa.

The report that ended the investigation into Rocker's management company raises new questions about state oversight of the McKay Scholarship program, which enables disabled children to use state money to pay tuition at a private school. More than 9,124 children are participating in the program this year, resulting in a shift of more than $53-million from public schools to private schools where the students have enrolled.

Education Commissioner Jim Horne is expected to make an announcement, perhaps today, regarding accountability measures for voucher programs.

[Last modified August 13, 2003, 01:32:38]

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