HOUSTON – Last February, KIPP, one the largest charter school chains in the country, terminated its co-founder Michael Feinberg over allegations of sexual abuse of a student more than two decades ago.
On Aug. 22, Feinberg filed a defamation suit against KIPP, along with a lengthy list of interrogatories, which seek, among other things, all communications between board members and media and all documents related to his firing.
Wanting to improve the performance of at-risk students, Feinberg co-founded KIPP in 1994. Since then, more than 200 schools have been established across the country.
According to the lawsuit, on Feb. 22, 2018, Feinberg’s life changed “dramatically” when KIPP “declared to the world” that he had sexually abused a minor – a false allegation made in order to ruin his reputation and stop him from ever competing with KIPP.
“KIPP aggressively and recklessly disseminated this allegation by publishing it directly on its blog, by spreading it via word of mouth across its extensive professional network, and by sourcing a story that ran prominently in the New York Times,” the suit states.
“This 20-year old allegation had already been fully investigated by KIPP Houston and Mike was cleared of any wrongdoing. But KIPP—wanting a different result—ordered a second investigation, which lacked due process and was otherwise deeply flawed.”
Feinberg says critical information about the allegations was never disclosed to him, and he was afforded no opportunity to respond or refute “those career and life-destroying allegations.”
“The process was grossly unfair but KIPP saw it as necessary to effect and support Mike’s ouster: an outcome that, upon information and belief, was predetermined by at least two KIPP board members, Richard Barth and Dave Levin,” the suit states. “The result was the termination of Mike’s employment, his removal from the KIPP boards and total public vilification.”
Feinberg maintains the public statements made following his termination were false and that KIPP knew such an allegation would destroy his career in education and be personally devastating to him, his family and friends.
“But KIPP didn’t care,” the suit states. “What mattered most to KIPP was that Mike be removed and his career be ruined. In that, KIPP succeeded.”
In April 2017, around 10 months before the firing, Feinberg was approached by an assistant principal and learned of the allegation, which was immediately reported.
KIPP retained attorney Ellen Spalding, who specializes in civil rights and school law, to conduct an investigation.
According to the lawsuit, on Aug. 28, 2017, Sehba Ali, the superintended of KIPP Houston, wrote to Feinberg, making it clear to him that Spalding had conducted a full investigation and was “unable to confirm or substantiate the allegations” and found “no evidence of wrongdoing.”
Ali informed Feinberg that she and KIPP “consider this matter to be officially closed.”
Ali, CEO of KIPP Texas, and Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation, issued the following statement to The Record: “This is a baseless and frivolous lawsuit. Mr. Feinberg’s employment was terminated last year after thorough investigations uncovered credible instances of misconduct incompatible with KIPP’s values. We regret Mr. Feinberg is choosing to put the women who came forward to share painful experiences, the witnesses who supported them, and the entire KIPP community through further distress.”
In November 2017, three months after the matter was “officially closed,” the KIPP Foundation and KIPP Houston, under direct pressure from board directors Levin and Barth, decided to conduct a duplicative investigation, according to the suit.
WilmerHale, a D.C. law firm, was retained to head the second investigation. The firm, according to the suit, did a narrow and selective review of the facts and only interviewed a select group of people.
“Companies and organizations regularly hire prominent white-collar law firms like WilmerHale to conduct investigations of sensitive and confidential matters,” the suit states. “Such investigations allow these entities to show the outside world that there was an ‘independent’ and ‘objective’ review of the facts. But all too often, these investigations are not independent or objective fact finding missions at all. Instead, the work of the law firm is intentionally circumscribed and tightly controlled by the employer to ensure that any findings and recommendations support a course of action that is preferred or one that has already been predetermined by the employer.
“The investigation often provides public relations air cover for the company or organization to proceed with what it has already decided to do.”
Feinberg says the firm never gave him detailed information about the allegations against him but that didn’t stop the firm from sharing the information with KIPP supporters and third-party educators, including Howard Fuller and Chris Barbic.
“Instead of a fair process, in which Mike was afforded due process and the opportunity to present his case, WilmerHale and KIPP were the sole judges, jury and, upon publishing false statements about their investigation, executioners,” the suit states.
“WilmerHale was careful not to generate a written report of its findings for the KIPP boards: such a document would have been discoverable in any subsequent litigation. Instead, WilmerHale presented their findings verbally to the boards.”
On Feb. 22, 2018, a meeting was held with Feinberg, during which an attorney with WilmerHale told him that they had found “no guilt” on his part and that the firm could not confirm the 20-year old abuse allegation.
“Nevertheless, KIPP informed Mike that they were terminating his employment,” the suit states.
Feinberg was asked if he would agree to voluntarily resign his board positions. Feinberg and his attorney said they would be in touch about the request and offered to discuss the issuance of a joint statement about his resignation.
“Little did Mike know that KIPP had no intention of preparing a joint statement or handling his departure ‘quietly,’” the suit states. “KIPP had already sourced exclusive news stories about Mike’s firing to the New York Times and the Houston Chronicle.
“KIPP had also prepared its own statement in the form of a blog post—in both English and Spanish—that it distributed widely by email and other means across its vast network that same afternoon.”
Everyone in Feinberg’s professional network received the blog post, in which KIPP wrote that the child abuse allegation was “credible,” along with “other misstatements and omissions and told outright lies.”
“KIPP wrote these statements: to justify their termination of Mike; to insulate them from expected criticism from funders and other KIPP supporters; to interfere with Mike’s relationships with the entire KIPP community including students, educators, staff, and supporters, as well as the broader educational community; and to thereby destroy his career,” the suit states.
“KIPP also provided the New York Times with a story on Mike’s termination. Other news outlets repeated statements from the blog and NYT article. The blog and NYT article essentially stated that Mike had sexually abused a child.”
The blog referenced both investigations, identifying WilmerHale by name and Ellen Spalding as “external counsel.” Spalding’s four-month long investigation was not characterized as a “full investigation” that found “no evidence of wrongdoing,” as both Spalding and KIPP acknowledged and admitted in August 2017.
“Instead, KIPP grossly misrepresented Spalding’s investigation, stating that she provided only ‘initial findings’ and, like WilmerHale, she also found the allegation of sexual abuse to be ‘credible,’” the suit states.
“KIPP’s statement is astounding in its outright mendacity: the only conclusion that can be drawn from Spalding’s investigation is that the allegation of child abuse—made twenty years after the alleged incident—was not credible, yet KIPP told the world the opposite.”
A few months after KIPP published its “false statements,” Feinberg voluntarily submitted to a polygraph examination, which determined that he was truthful when he denied the specific child abuse allegations, according to the suit.
“KIPP’s statements were false, misleading, written to justify terminating Mike, and published to make sure he could never compete with KIPP,” the suit states.
Filed with the suit was a set of interrogatories, which seek:
- The name of anyone who communicated with the New York Times and Houston Chronicle;
- All documents related to the communication with the news outlets;
- All documents related to the firing;
- Feinberg’s employee file; and
- All documents related to the investigation.
On top of punitive damages, Feinberg is suing for actual damages, including mental anguish, loss of society and loss of earning capacity.
He is represented by E.F. Mano Deayala, John Dagley and Laura Gleen, attorneys for the Houston law firm Buck Keenan.