Orlando Sentinel | by Beth Kassab, Leslie Portal, and Kevin Spear | October 1, 2020
Former Florida Virtual School general counsel Frank Kruppenbacher falsified his own performance evaluation so he could get a raise at the Orlando-based school, according to witness accounts inan investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The FDLE probe, which it closed out in March, did not result in any criminal charges against Kruppenbacher. A copy of the agency’s report and other materials were provided to the Sentinel this week in response to a public records request.
The law enforcement agency also looked into claims that Kruppenbacher did not properly log his time off when he traveled extensively for his role as chairman of the board that controls Orlando International Airport as well as allegations that he backdated a contract and made his salary appear lower than it was before providing the contract to a Politico journalist.
Through a spokeswoman, FDLE agents declined to comment on the report.
Reached by the Sentinel on Wednesday, Kruppenbacher denied falsifying his own performance evaluation.
“I can tell you that is blatantly a lie,” he said.
The report is the latest chapter in a period of tumult for the public onlineschool, which this year was thrust into the spotlight again with surging enrollment as the state’s largest provider of virtual classes, with many parents opting against sending their kids to school campusesduring the coronavirus pandemic.
FLVS’s full-time program has 3,720 more students than at this time last year, an increase of more than 60%, said Tania Clow, a school spokeswoman, in an email. The school’s more popular part-time program, called FLVS Flex, has had more than 228,000 new course enrollments this year, a 61% increase.
The part-time program faced such a deluge of new applications that it had to temporarily close elementary enrollment, Clow said, though it plans to open it again in late October.
FLVS has hired about 300 new teachers and is working to hire about 100 more, she said.
The influx of new students hit only a year after the school underwent a series of leadership changes and its board of directors was disbanded by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature after an investigation in the Sentinel that reported on Kruppenbacher’s behavior and cozy relationships between him and the board.
DeSantis still hasn’t appointed a new board of directors and, for now, FLVS President Louis Algaze has the authority to manage its operations and nearly $200 million budget.
For a time, the State Board of Education served as the FLVS board, and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran helped oversee the school.
But that arrangement ended in May, around the time a new law authorized DeSantis to appoint a new board.
Details from the FDLE investigation highlight a series of concerns employees reported about Kruppenbacher.
For example, they looked into how the signature of a former board chairman appeared on what witnesses said was a backdated contract that one witness said Kruppenbacher altered in response to a public records request from a Politco journalist in 2018.
The contract provided to the journalist said Kruppenbacher’s salary was $180,000 a year when it had actually increased to at least $219,000, according to the investigation. Leslie McLaughlin, an employee of FLVS, told agents that Kruppenbacher asked her to alter the contract and then affix the chairman’s signature to it and reprint it.
She said she was uncomfortable putting the chairman’s signature on the document, but Kruppenbacher asked the chairman to sign it, and he did, at a meeting in 2018, though the document was dated 2017. Robert Gidel, chairman at the time, told agents he did not recall why the new contract was signed or if a revision was made and likely signed the page because he trusted Kruppenbacher.
In addition, the agents questioned multiple people in regards to a performance evaluation of Kruppenbacher purportedly signed by a different board chairman — Dhyana Ziegler — in 2015. Ziegler, who also took over as temporary interim president of the school last year, pointed out to agents that her name was misspelled on the document.
“My name is even spelled wrong,” Ziegler said when agents showed her the evaluation. “That is not my handwriting and I didn’t do it. I know how to spell my name.”
Ziegler said she did evaluate Kruppenbacher and remembered writing comments about how he needed to improve communication with the board, but said she did not complete the evaluation form agents showed her.
Another employee, Alfred Lopez of the school’s human resources department, told agents that the handwriting on the evaluation in question appeared to be Kruppenbacher’s, which he was familiar with, and not Ziegler’s.
McLaughlin also told agents that Kruppenbacher filled out the form in order to get a raise.
“He filled it out himself,” she said.
On Wednesday, Kruppenbacher denied that claim.
“The reality is Ms. Ziegler evaluated me and she acknowledges it in the report,” he said.
The FDLE report said an investigator contacted Kruppenbacher’s lawyer, Warren Lindsey, in January and February, asking to interview Kruppenbacher.
On March 6, Lindsey responded that “based on attorney client privileges between Kruppenbacher and GOAA, Kruppenbacher did not wish to give a statement,” the FDLE report states.
Left unclear was how Kruppenbacher’s status as a volunteer chairman for the airport at the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority until early 2019 would result in attorney-client privileges.
Agents also asked witnesses about a series of trips Kruppenbacher made on behalf of the airport, and the FDLE report includes a copy of Kruppenbacher’s travel information provided by airport officials.
According to that information, Kruppenbacher went to three U.S. cities and 11 foreign cities, including Panama City, Buenas Aires, Tel Aviv, Tokyo and Bejing.
Travel to other countries was for recruiting foreign airlines into making Orlando a destination, an effort that brought limited results.
A previous Orlando Sentinel examination of Kruppenbacher’s expense reports found that he traveled abroad 14 times for GOAA within a span of six years.
Those overseas travels kept him away from Orlando for more than 100 days, an absence that included weeks of personal time, according Kruppenbacher’s reports for expenses of more than $100,000.
Kruppenbacher did not record much of his GOAA travels as FLVS vacation, the report states. When he left the school in 2018 he took a payment of more than $25,000 for six weeks of unused vacation, according to school records.
FDLE agents noted that Kruppenbacher’s employment contract was “generally worded and did not specify whether or not Kruppenbacher could work away from the office.”