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Deceased gay mayor of Hyattsville accused of embezzling $2.2 million

Federal lawsuit seeks seizure of homes, cars bought with stolen funds

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Former Hyattsville Mayor Kevin Ward died by suicide in January. (Photo courtesy of the City of Hyattsville)

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in D.C. on Monday by federal prosecutors accuses the gay former mayor of Hyattsville, Md., who took his own life in January, of embezzling $2.2 million from a D.C. charter school network he worked for from 2017 to July 2021.

A 24-page complaint in support of the lawsuit filed by prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice charges Kevin Ward, who served as Senior Director of Technology for KIPP DC, one of the city’s largest charter school networks, with using the embezzled funds to purchase property in West Virginia, at least 10 cars, and art and sports memorabilia.

“The Defendant Vehicles and Assorted Art and Sports Memorabilia were seized in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, and are currently in the custody of the U.S. Marshall Service,” the lawsuit complaint states.

It says federal authorities do not seek authority at this time to seize two houses on large tracts of land in Augusta, W.Va., which it says Ward allegedly purchased using embezzled funds from KIPP DC.

The lawsuit, which identifies itself as a civil forfeiture proceeding, doesn’t say whether the land and houses, 10 expensive vehicles, and the art and sports memorabilia are currently owned by Ward’s estate and his heirs, including his surviving husband, or whether some of the items had been sold before or after Ward’s death and the start of an investigation into the alleged embezzlement that began shortly before Ward took his own life.

Justice Department spokesperson Joshua Stueve told the Washington Blade the department would have no further comment on the lawsuit at this time.

The lawsuit says that among the 10 vehicles Ward allegedly purchased using embezzled funds were a 2021 Tesla Model S Plaid at a cost of $137,290 and a 2020 Tesla Model Y for $73,746.95.

Ward, 44, became acting mayor of Hyattsville on Jan. 1, 2021, following the resignation of former Mayor Candice Hollingsworth. He was next in line to become mayor in his role at the time as president of the Hyattsville City Council. Ward won election to complete the remainder of Hollingsworth’s term through 2023 in a special election, receiving 57.8 percent of the vote in a three-candidate race.

LGBTQ activists said they considered Ward as highly qualified to serve as Hyattsville’s first openly gay mayor. Ward posted on his campaign website during the election that he and his family made Hyattsville their home in 2014 after he and his husband adopted their two sons.
 Those who knew him, including many in the LGBTQ community, expressed shock and sorrow when the city of Hyattsville released a statement on Jan. 26 announcing Ward had died one day earlier from an apparent suicide.

“Mayor Ward was a valued and trusted leader and a fierce advocate for all the people of Hyattsville,” the statement said. “We are heartbroken at this loss and extend our deepest sympathy to the mayor’s family.”

U.S. Park Police disclosed at the time that Ward was found deceased with a “self-inflected gunshot wound” at Fort Marcy Park in McLean, Va.  

The federal lawsuit says that in his role as Senior Director of Technology for KIPP DC, Ward, among other things, was responsible for purchasing information technology products and services, including computers, tablets, software, and network services.

It says that shortly after the start of the COVID pandemic, when the closing of all schools for in-person attendance required the purchase of additional high-tech equipment to assist in remote learning, Ward reportedly created a company called Tenret Tech that purported to sell computer related equipment. The lawsuit complaint says the company’s address was listed as Ward’s home address.

It says a short time later, another company affiliated with Tenret Tech, Vast Systems, appeared on the scene that was controlled by Ward.

“Between April 2020 and October 2021, KIPP DC paid Tenret Tech and Vast Systems…approximately $2.2 million for laptops, tablets, and related services, all of which were arranged for and approved by Ward,” the complaint says. “None of the products or services which KIPP DC paid Tenret Tech were provided or delivered to KIPP DC,” the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit complaint, KIPP DC officials discovered last November or December after conducting an internal review that Tenret Tech had not provided any of the products and services purchased by KIPP DC and immediately suspected they had become the victim of fraud.

KIPP DC has said it informed the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. of its finding, which prompted prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s office to open an investigation into the matter.
KIPP DC told the Washington Post the charter school network has recovered $1 million from its insurance provider and it was optimistic that the Justice Department’s recovery process through the lawsuit would recover more than $800,000 of the stolen funds.

“Sometime in July 2021, Ward took a leave of absence from KIPP DC and ultimately left its employment,” the complaint says.

Nearby gay mayors – Patrick Wojahn of College Park and Jeffrey Slavin of Sommerset, Md., said they got to know Ward through Maryland political circles and thought very highly of him. Both said they were deeply saddened by his suicide.

“There was nothing in his public life that would have predicted this,” Slavin said at the time of Ward’s death.

News of the allegations raised in the federal lawsuit now raise the question of whether Ward may have taken his own life after learning of the investigation into his alleged embezzlement.

“Like everyone else, I was shocked to learn of these charges, but I will continue to keep my focus on the positive aspects of Mayor Ward’s legacy,” Slavin told the Blade.

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Maryland

P.G. County school board settles trans teacher’s discrimination lawsuit

English teacher says she faced years of harassment and abuse

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Jennifer Eller says she suffered years of abuse, harassment, and discrimination at P.G. County public schools. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal)

The Prince George’s County, Md., Board of Education and transgender former teacher Jennifer Eller have reached a settlement agreement regarding a 2018 discrimination lawsuit that Eller filed against the P.G. school system, according to a statement released by Eller’s attorneys.

Eller’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, charged that Eller suffered years of abuse, harassment, and discrimination at the hands of students, fellow teachers, staff, and school administrators while working as an English teacher in P.G. County’s public schools because of her status as a transgender woman.

The statement released by the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal and the law firm Arnold & Porter, which provided pro bono legal representation for Eller, calls the settlement a victory for her.

“The settlement agreement includes monetary compensation and incorporates policy and training changes to protect transgender students and staff within Prince George’s County Public Schools,” the statement says.

“I’m relieved to see this case finally come to a resolution and satisfied to see that our case led to the adoption of these policy changes and training protocols to improve the school environment for everyone, including LGBTQ+ students and teachers” Eller said in the statement. “This settlement vindicates my pleas for help and sensitivity training on LGBTQ+ issues for students and staff,” she said.

The statement does not provide specific details of the terms of the settlement and does not disclose the amount of monetary compensation provided by the P.G. County Schools to Eller.

The lawsuit, as originally filed, called for the court to grant Eller “declaratory injunctive relief” to legally confirm she was forced to resign due to adverse conditions imposed on her by school officials. It also called for the court to require the school system to provide her back pay, lost benefits, and a possible reinstatement as a teacher.

Lambda Legal spokesperson Samy Nemir told the Blade Eller’s attorneys were not at liberty to disclose the amount of the monetary compensation due to a confidentiality agreement that was part of the settlement.

D.C.’s WTOP News reported that a spokesperson for the P.G. County Public Schools said the school system was committed to “promoting and maintaining learning and working environments that are safe, positive and affirming for all students and staff regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”

According to WTOP, the spokesperson said the lawsuit was “resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.”

In court filings in response to the lawsuit, P.G. school officials denied Eller’s allegations of discrimination and harassment. In January of this year attorneys for the P.G. schools filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case on grounds that the lawsuit failed to provide sufficient evidence that Eller was subjected to discrimination and harassment that forced her to resign due to a hostile work environment.

But in a development that likely prompted P.G. school officials to settle the case, U.S. District Court Judge Theodore D. Chuang denied the motion to dismiss the case and ruled that Eller’s attorneys had introduced sufficient evidence to bring the case to trial.

“The court found that the alleged facts and the information as discovered throughout the case in the discovery process is sufficient to allow a jury to find whether Jennifer Eller was subjected to a hostile work environment and constructive discharge and retaliation unlawfully by the defendants,” Lambda Legal attorney Omar Gonzales-Pagan told the Blade at the time of the ruling in January.

“The settlement reached today is a meaningful result for our client, whose primary goal in bringing this suit was to ensure that no other individuals in the Prince George’s County Public Schools system endured the same treatment that she did,” said Arnold & Porter attorney Lori Leskin. “Our hope is that the policies and training protocols that have been and will be implemented will help foster a more inclusive and accepting environment for all LGBTQ+ individuals in the school system,” Leskin said.

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Maryland

FreeState Justice files lawsuit against former executive director

Jeremy LaMaster allegedly launched ‘coordinated attack’ on organization’s operations

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Former FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster (Photo courtesy of Jeremy LaMaster)

FreeState Justice on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against its former executive director who has accused its board of directors of having a “white supremacist culture.”

The lawsuit, which FreeState Justice filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, notes the board on Sept. 16 informed Jeremy LaMaster that “they were relieved of their duties, and the final two weeks of their employment were to be spent cooperating in the transition of FreeState’s operations.”

“LaMaster abruptly left the meeting early and immediately began a coordinated attack on FreeState’s operations; in particular, its IT assets,” reads the lawsuit. “When FreeState discovered LaMaster’s improper interference, it terminated their employment effective immediately, ordered them to cease and desist and to rectify their actions. LaMaster did not abide and continued to hijack and misappropriate FreeState’s IT infrastructure and documents.” 

The lawsuit alleges that LaMaster “unilaterally and without authorization changed user permissions and shared login information so only they had access to numerous systems and accounts.” 

“They also removed employees’ administrative access to numerous systems and accounts, leaving such access to only themself,” reads the lawsuit. “In doing so, LaMaster has left FreeState’s employees with little to no access to client files, case files, dashboard reports,and case notes. LaMaster also changed the password to FreeState’s WordPress account, leaving LaMaster in sole control of FreeState’s website.” 

LaMaster, who uses nonbinary and binary pronouns, in a message they sent from his FreeState Justice email account on Monday announced their resignation after they said the board declined to step down.

“This morning, I requested the FreeState Justice board of directors to submit their immediate resignations due to persistent violations of our board handbook, consistent failures in their fiduciary responsibilities, and using positions of power to engage in partisan lobbying within FreeState Justice and their repeated refusal to add new members and leadership to the board,” wrote LaMaster.

LaMaster in their email noted they “exhausted every avenue over the past two years to get our board fully staffed and running, and I made good faith efforts to work with the board to ensure that our clients and low-income LGBTQ Marylanders remained at our center.” 

“Instead, the board has refused to accept any new board members since 2021 and refused to staff and run core board activities as per our handbook,” wrote LaMaster. “Instead, they have worked to consolidate power and amend the board handbook in secret to lower the minimum number of board members required and ensure that our policy positions prioritize relationships with legislators, not the best interests of our clients and community. I have provided clear warnings and consistent concerns over these issues that were repeatedly ignored.”

“These are the hallmarks of white supremacist culture: The concentration of power, power hoarding, defensiveness, right to comfort, fear of open conflict, hyper-individualism, and a false sense of urgency,” added LaMaster.

FreeState Justice in response to LaMaster’s allegations said it fired them on Sept. 16 “after prolonged and thoughtful deliberation” and further noted their statement “does not reflect the views or ideals of FreeState Justice’s board and staff.” FreeState Justice has named Phillip Westry as LaMaster’s successor.

The lawsuit alleges LaMaster “has commandeered” Westry’s Google account, “rendering him unable to access his emails, internal work calendars, and collaborative documents shared and worked on via Google Drive.” 

“LaMaster also now has unfettered and improper access to employee lists, donor lists, volunteer lists, mailing lists, client lists, and pro bono attorney lists,” reads the lawsuit. 

“Despite FreeState’s insistence that they cease their unlawful activities and restore operations immediately, LaMaster proceeded to upload a defamatory post to FreeState’s website and disseminated it to approximately 43,000 recipients on FreeState’s mailing list, which they accessed without authorization,” it notes. “The post, titled, ‘Whistleblowing: Public Call for the Resignation of the FreeState Board of Directors’ falsely depicts the circumstances surrounding their departure from FreeState by stating that they resigned, without basis alleged that the Board engaged in ethical violations, and likened FreeState’s Board to White Supremacists, claiming they supported white supremacist culture and practices, and were not ‘anti-racist.’ This is false, defamatory, and denigrating of FreeState and its board members, and extraordinarily damaging for a social justice organization.” 

The lawsuit further notes that because “LaMaster did not comply with FreeState’s cease and desist letter, because LaMaster continues to infiltrate FreeState’s systems and accounts, and because LaMaster, after receiving FreeState’s cease and desist letter published a post defaming FreeState, and without authorization, posted it to FreeState’s website, and disseminated it to its mailing list of approximately 43,000 people with his FreeState email address, FreeState has no choice but to seek judicial intervention to prevent further unlawful conduct, and irreparable harm to FreeState.”

“FreeState requests an immediate hearing on this matter,” reads the lawsuit. “It can be reasonably presumed that LaMaster will continue to use FreeState’s proprietary information to interfere with FreeState’s business relations and continue to interfere with FreeState’s possessory interests in its systems and accounts, depriving FreeState personnel of access to the accounts, documents, and files they need to perform their work.”

The Washington Blade has reached out to LaMaster for comment on the lawsuit. 

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Maryland

FreeState Justice executive director resigns, says board has ‘white supremacist culture’

Former staffers sharply critical of Jeremy LaMaster

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Jeremy LaMaster (Photo courtesy of FreeState Justice)

FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster on Monday announced their resignation after they said the organization’s board of directors declined their request to step down.

“This morning, I requested the FreeState Justice board of directors to submit their immediate resignations due to persistent violations of our board handbook, consistent failures in their fiduciary responsibilities, and using positions of power to engage in partisan lobbying within FreeState Justice and their repeated refusal to add new members and leadership to the board,” said LaMaster in an email they sent from his FreeState Justice email account. “They declined, and it is with a heavy heart that I announce my resignation as executive director and make a public call for their resignation instead: For the resignation of Lindsey Young, board president; Riley Roshong, board vice president; Brianna January, board secretary; Lee Carpenter, Brenda Dorsch, Andrew Adelman and Jess Landers Hopkins.”

LaMaster in June 2020 succeeded Mark Procopio as executive director.

LaMaster in his email noted they “exhausted every avenue over the past two years to get our board fully staffed and running, and I made good faith efforts to work with the board to ensure that our clients and low-income LGBTQ Marylanders remained at our center.” 

“Instead, the board has refused to accept any new board members since 2021 and refused to staff and run core board activities as per our handbook,” wrote LaMaster. “Instead, they have worked to consolidate power and amend the board handbook in secret to lower the minimum number of board members required and ensure that our policy positions prioritize relationships with legislators, not the best interests of our clients and community. I have provided clear warnings and consistent concerns over these issues that were repeatedly ignored.”

“These are the hallmarks of white supremacist culture: the concentration of power, power hoarding, defensiveness, right to comfort, fear of open conflict, hyper-individualism, and a false sense of urgency,” added LaMaster.

A link to LaMaster’s letter can be found here.

The Washington Blade has reached out to Carpenter for comment on LaMaster’s allegations.

Former FreeState Justice Education and Outreach Director Ezra Halstead in an email they sent to the Blade on Monday sharply rebuked LaMaster.

“The claims that are being made are 100 percent false, and the reality is that Jeremy has single-handedly destroyed the organization on their own,” wrote Halstead.

Halstead attached a letter that former FreeState Justice Legal Director CP Hoffman wrote to the organization’s board on March 31, 2022, the day their resignation took effect. 

Hoffman in their letter noted “historically poor provision of legal services” that “centered almost entirely on name and gender change cases for transgender individuals” and a “poor reputation statewide, especially among the transgender community and communities of color.” Hoffman also noted “employee retention has been a longstanding issue for FreeState Justice” along with “hiring decisions” and “board disengagement.”

Hoffman also made specific allegations against LaMaster.

“Mr. LaMaster’s mismanagement extends well beyond myself and the leadership team at the time he assumed office,” wrote Hoffman in their letter. “Numerous employees hired over the past two years have come to me to express concerns regarding his management, citing concerns from discriminatory pay structures and broken promises about advancement, inappropriate delegation of personal tasks, providing little or no instruction or oversight of delegated tasks, and even inappropriately using the legitimacy of a minority-led organization as a front for grant applications where the majority of funding would go directly to FreeState Justice.”

A copy of Hoffman’s letter can be found here.

The Blade has reached out to LaMaster for comment on the allegations that Hoffman and Halstead have made against him.

Hoffman told the Blade they are unable to comment because of the “non-disparagement agreement” they were asked to sign “as a condition of my severance.”

“As such, I am contractually unable to offer public comment at this time about FreeState’s former executive director, Jeremy LaMaster,” said Hoffman. “I will, however, confirm that I did draft the March 31 memo, that it was sent to the FreeState Justice board of directors, and that I stand by the recommendations made in that memo.”

FreeState Justice on Tuesday announced Phillip Westry will succeed LaMaster. Tina Jones will be the organization’s new deputy executive director.

The announcement said FreeState Justice on Sept. 16 fired LaMaster “after prolonged and thoughtful deliberation.”

“Every effort was made to make this transition as efficient and amicable as possible,” said FreeState Justice. “In the wake of LaMaster’s termination, he issued a statement that does not reflect the views or ideals of FreeState Justice’s board and staff. The board of directors has earnestly fulfilled its fiduciary duties to the organization and takes these responsibilities very seriously. In working to fulfill FreeState’s mission, the board also remains committed to promoting diversity and inclusion within the organization and in the larger LGBTQIA+ community.”

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