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Special Report: KD Investigators Question Spending At Charter School

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- It's the mission of the Urban Pathways Charter School downtown to provide alternative education for underprivileged students, and CEO Linda Clautti has complained for years that she thinks her school and other charter schools are getting shortchanged.

"Part of my job as the chief executive officer is to make up that gap," Clautti said.

But a KDKA investigation found that Clautti might start by tightening her own belt.

A former employee says Urban Pathways is spending money on things they shouldn't.

"I couldn't even begin to add it up. It's staggering," the former employee said. "You see the bills, and you're shocked at what's going on."

After reviewing three years of Clautti's school credit card bills, we found tens of thousands of dollars in charges for lunches and dinners at the city's finest restaurants, including Nine On Nine, Sonoma Grill, the Carlton and Morton's Steakhouse.

Clautti says she was entertaining prospective donors.

KDKA's Andy Sheehan: "If you say to the taxpayer, I need to go to Nine on Nine or Sonoma Grill or the Carlton because I need to raise money. These are the places you need to go?"

Clautti: "I go where it's convenient for the people I am meeting. I am at their mercy. They're the ones trying to help me."

But that's just the beginning. We found thousands more in catering bills. Clautti used top flight caterers for staff meetings and every board meeting to tune of $300 and $400 dollars a pop.

The board, which is supposed to provide fiscal oversight, gets other perks.

Records show that one board member and the spouses of two others have smartphones provided by the school, which also pays their monthly phone bill.

"They would get brand new iPhones," the former employee said. "Every time there was a latest model released, they'd get the new iPhone 4 or the iPhone 5."

But the biggest perk for the board is the annual retreat with administrators at expensive and exclusive resorts and spas.

"They went to Nemacolin for two weeks to have their leadership team retreat. They've gone to Atlantic City, I believe it's called a Sea Isle' they've gone to salons in the local area," the former employee said. "Total, blatant waste of money."

Clautti defended the retreats, including a recent one to the Bedford Springs Resort, saying the board and staff need to get away from the school to brainstorm.

"I do think it's necessary to exercise the brain and get new ideas," Clautti said.

But the former employee called the retreats costly and unnecessary two-week junkets that do little or nothing to advance the mission of the school.

"I never went on these trips. I was categorically opposed to that," the former employee said. "I was quite frankly appalled."

It's not just the local school.

Architecture and consultant bills for the development of a new Urban Pathways School in Youngstown Ohio, total close to $15,000, paid for with your local school tax dollars.

Clautti says she was unaware the bills had been paid with Pennsylvania tax dollars until KDKA's Andy Sheehan brought them to her attention.

"Paying that bill was in error, and we're glad that you found that because we found one or two other bills that were in error," she said.

She says she's asked the firms to reimburse the school and blames the payments on a former accountant.

Sheehan: "Is that an example of a lack of fiscal oversight?"

Clautti: "It was a mistake, but that person is no longer here."

But the former employee we spoke with says he quit after seeing one too many inappropriate expenditures.

"I thought to myself, 'I can't do this. Someone is eventually going to come asking questions about this. I'm not signing my name to these checks.' I went and sought employment elsewhere," the former employee said.

Sheehan: "You couldn't stomach it?"

Former Employee: "No."

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