There were days when Bill Lager wrote check after check to political parties and candidate campaigns, sending tens of thousands of dollars out as he built the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow into the Ohio's largest online charter school.
Campaign finance records turned over in response to a federal grand jury subpoena issued in February 2019 show that Lager and his associates contributed $1.66 million to candidate committees and another $300,000 to political parties from 2000 to 2019.
The U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment on the status of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow investigation.
In response to the subpoena, the Ohio secretary of state sent 16 spreadsheets that document a pattern of generous contributions in Ohio politics over nearly two decades.
All of the contributions went to Republican party accounts and nearly all of the candidates backed by ECOT were Republicans. And roughly $1.4 million of the candidate contributions went to legislative candidates.
Lager and his associates ramped up political giving over the years and strategically donated to politicos who were positioned to help or hurt the online school. Recipients included legislative leaders and committee chairs, candidates for governor and state auditor, supreme court justices and state school board candidates.
The donations hit a crescendo in June 2017 when Lager and ECOT Director of Operations Melissa Vasil each contributed $12,000 to Republican Larry Householder's campaign committee and each contributed $38,000 to the Ohio Republican Party – $100,000 donated in the span of four days.
At the time, the school filed a lawsuit with the Ohio Supreme Court to try to overturn a decision by state officials that ECOT repay $64 million.
Some of that money appeared to funnel from the state party through county parties and then onto Householder's campaign committee. It triggered a series of refunds.
Here is the pattern of donations and refunds in 2017:
- June 22 - Lager and Vasil each contribute $12,000 to Householder's campaign
- June 26 - Lager and Vasil each contribute $38,000 to the Ohio GOP
- June 30 - Ohio GOP contributes $70,000 to Summit County Republican Party
- July 8 - Summit County Republican Party contributes $70,000 to Householder's campaign
- July 28 - Ohio GOP contributes $65,000 to Cuyahoga County Republican Party. Cuyahoga GOP contributes $63,000 to Householder
- Aug. 1 - Householder campaign returns $70,000 to Summit GOP. Ohio GOP returns $38,000 to Lager.
- Aug. 3 - Householder campaign returns $63,000 to Cuyahoga GOP
- Dec. 13 - Ohio GOP returns $38,000 to Vasil.
Householder's campaign has said it returned the funds once the campaign realized it had taken too much county party money. State law says a candidate can accept a maximum of $63,500 from all county parties per election period.
It is illegal in Ohio for donors to utilize a state or county party to secretly earmark campaign contributions for a specific candidate.
Lager founded the school in 2000 and created for-profit companies to manage and provide IT services to the charter school. The companies collected about $1 billion in state funds since 2000.
Early on, though, state audits found ECOT had been overpaid. A 2001 special audit found Ohio overpaid $1.9 million and a financial audit released in 2002 found $1.65 million in overpayments.
In 2003 ECOT and the Ohio Department of Education reached a funding agreement that largely limited reviews of enrollment. And in 2005 the state put a moratorium on new e-schools that limited competition for ECOT for eight years.
In September 2016, the Ohio Department of Education determined ECOT had overstated its student headcount and the state demanded repayment of $64 million. ECOT is still challenging that repayment order.
In January 2018, the school abruptly shut down. Five months later, in May, then state auditor Dave Yost issued a critical report that raised allegations of fraud. The audit was referred to federal authorities.
Laura Bischoff is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.