TALLAHASSEE — A state appeals court next week will hear arguments in a challenge to the conviction of a former charter-school management company CEO who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for racketeering and fraud involving schools in various parts of Florida.
Marcus May, whose company Newpoint Education Partners operated 15 schools in six counties, is asking the 1st District Court of Appeal to overturn his 2018 conviction in Escambia County.
The appeal raises a series of issues, including arguing that an expert witness was improperly prevented from testifying and that a prosecutor made inflammatory and inappropriate comments. Among other things, May’s attorneys pointed to descriptions of May’s lifestyle and the prosecutor’s use of the term “kickbacks” in describing the alleged illegal conduct.
“The prosecutor repeatedly noted that Mr. May has a Maserati, yachts, boats and a Rolex, that he regularly traveled and stayed in hotels and makes extravagant use of funds,” May’s attorneys wrote in a brief filed last year at the Tallahassee-based appeals court. “The type of items Mr. May purchased and owned, and the amount of time he travels, is completely irrelevant to his alleged guilt of the charged offenses. Any minimal relevance is strongly outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.”
But Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office defended the prosecutor’s comments, pointing, in part, to charges against May of engaging in a “fraudulent billing and kickback scheme.”
“Under Appellant’s (May’s) logic, a prosecutor trying a murder case would be barred from using the word ‘murder’ to describe a killing because the word ‘murder’ implies illegality,” Moody’s office said in a brief. “Likewise, under Appellant’s logic, a prosecutor trying a theft case could not use the words ‘steal,’ ‘stolen,’ or ‘stole’ because those terms imply illegality. Put simply, his objection to the term ‘kickbacks’ is absurd because some of the allegations against Appellant involved his receiving kickbacks.”
A three-judge panel of the appeals court is scheduled Tuesday to hear the case. May, 59, was convicted of two counts of racketeering and one count of organized fraud and is an inmate at Lancaster Correctional Institution, according to the state Department of Corrections website.
Charter schools are public schools that have nonprofit governing boards but are often operated day-to-day by private management companies. The briefs filed at the appeals court do not list the counties where Newpoint Education Partners had contracts to manage schools, but a 2017 Pensacola News Journal story listed them as Escambia, Bay, Duval, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Broward counties.
The allegations against May included that he used his own company, Red Ignition, LLC, to sell items such as computer equipment at “exorbitant markups” to schools managed by Newpoint Education Partners, according to the brief by Moody’s office. Also, he was accused of receiving kickbacks from a friend who sold goods to the schools.
The attorney general’s brief said victims in the case included the 15 charter schools and six school districts, parents and students, the Florida Department of Education and investors and partners in Newpoint Education Partners.
“Appellant controlled the banking, purchasing, and bookkeeping for the schools,” the brief by Moody’s office said. “The evidence showed that the (nonprofit) boards did not control the finances and did not know of any conflict of interest between its management company and any of its vendors. Nor did the boards participate in selecting a vendor, selecting the location of the schools or the negotiation of leases.”
But the brief by May’s attorneys said that throughout the trial in Escambia County, he contended he complied with “standard business practices” and contracts.
“Mr. May asserted that the evidence at trial showed that there were operation agreements, charter school contracts and contracts with vendors that gave Mr. May the right, authority and responsibility to take the actions in question,” the brief said. “These agreements and contracts also provided authority for the financial compensation he received.”`