JEFFERSON CITY • Buried in state files related to the construction of Imagine charter schools are bank records with three unexplained transactions.
The records raise questions about the relationship between an Imagine Schools executive and the general contracting firm that renovated its St. Louis school buildings.
The bank statements of Samuel & Co. — the firm hired by Imagine to renovate school buildings in 2006 and 2007 — show $32,000 in payments to a New Jersey bank referencing the name "Sam Howard."
Sam Howard is also the name of a top Imagine executive who lives in New Jersey and oversees the Virginia-based charter school management company's operations in the Midwest.
The records, on file at the Missouri Department of Economic Development, show payments to "Sam Howard" in three different months. They came shortly before or after Schoolhouse Finance, Imagine's real estate arm, had reimbursed Samuel & Co. for construction work done on several school buildings that opened in 2007.
Samuel & Co. is run by developer Samuel Glasser, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to bank fraud involving a kickback scheme with a business associate in an unrelated project. Glasser had owned the company but later transferred ownership to his wife.
When shown copies of the Samuel & Co. bank records with his name listed as a recipient, Imagine executive Howard said, "I don't know anything about this.
"I have no idea what that is. No idea whatsoever," he added. "What would it benefit me?"
Lori Waters, the spokeswoman for Imagine Schools, said Friday that corporate officials in Virginia were unaware of the transactions listed in the bank records.
"We want to find out more and get the facts," she said. "We will be investigating the situation."
Glasser did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
His attorney Scott Rosenblum said that neither "Mr. Glasser, nor his wife nor anyone associated with Samuel & Co. made any untoward payment to anybody. And to suggest otherwise would be irresponsible."
Glasser came to Imagine with a criminal past. In the 1970s, he was convicted of conspiracy to import cocaine. A federal judge sentenced him to four years in prison. For the better part of the next three decades, Glasser worked in St. Louis as a real estate investor, turning empty downtown buildings into luxury condominiums and loft apartments.
In February, Glasser pleaded guilty to a federal bank fraud charge. He admitted to inflating invoices for interior rehab work he was doing on the Ford Building at 1405 Pine Street. The building owner submitted the invoices to Montgomery Bank for reimbursement. Glasser kicked back part of the mark-up to the building owner, according to the federal indictment.
In June, he was sentenced to time served and 100 hours of community service. The project is not connected to Imagine Schools Inc.
Barry Sharp, president of Schoolhouse Finance, Imagine's real estate arm, said earlier this month that he did not believe Glasser could have done anything improper in his work for Imagine.
"There wasn't really the opportunity to do that with us," Sharp said.
Officials at the Missouri Department of Economic Development are not as convinced.
In May, the department put on hold three of Glasser's four applications for state historic tax credits for Samuel & Co.'s work in rehabbing the Imagine school buildings.
The state had in 2007 awarded Glasser $478,584 in tax credits for work done at 1409 Linton Avenue — Imagine Academy of Academic Success. But it had not awarded credits for three other properties that now are home to Imagine Academy of Careers Elementary, Imagine Academy of Careers Middle and Imagine Academy of Cultural Arts.
After state officials became aware of Glasser's prosecution, the Department of Economic Development got in touch with the FBI. In May, the department gave investigators copies of thousands of pages involving Glasser's work with Imagine schools. The bank statements were included in those files.
"Until the FBI's investigation of this matter has been concluded," wrote Ann Perry, the department's finance team manager, to another of Glasser's attorneys, "processing of the final application for the Project will remain suspended."
FBI spokeswoman Rebecca Wu said she could neither confirm nor deny the agency's role.
Meanwhile, Imagine settled over the summer a lawsuit filed by one of its own administrators in St. Louis who accused the company of firing her for reporting an alleged kickback paid to a co-worker.
Hortense "Cyndi" Harrison-Lewis, who had been Imagine's regional vice president in Missouri, claimed in her suit that she saw checks made out to another regional administrator. The payments were from "one or more companies that had entered into contracts for construction and/or renovation services for buildings or schools that had been purchased by defendant Imagine," her lawsuit states. According to the lawsuit, after Harrison-Lewis reported what she saw to Imagine officials, they retaliated against her by not responding to her monthly email reports, canceling her corporate credit card and disconnecting her business cellphone.
In 2007, she was fired by Howard, who was her boss. The termination letter he sent her said she had abandoned her job duties and misused the company credit card.
Harrison-Lewis now works as a principal in the St. Louis Public Schools. The co-worker no longer works for Imagine.
Howard declined to talk about the case, or the alleged kickbacks, or why the accused co-worker left Imagine.
"That's a legal matter," he said.
Howard did, however, talk about Glasser.
"He's a very intriguing gentleman," Howard said. "He's well-educated. Well-spoken. He cares. He also is a human being."