FBI joins probe of T.M. Landry school

T.M. Landry College Prep board Chairman Greg Davis speaks to media during a press conference in December, shortly after the New York Times published a story alleging fraud at the school. Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The gist: After its blockbuster November exposé on T.M. Landry College Prep, The New York Times is keeping at it, making T.M. Landry the premiere story on its new TV series, The Weekly, and reporting Sunday that the FBI has turned its attention to the school. In The Weekly, which debuted Sunday night, the Times reporters acknowledged for the first time that they were tipped off to the story by a former federal prosecutor.

It’s unknown what the FBI is probing, but one person who was interviewed by the feds and asked not to be identified told the paper T.M. Landry’s college application practices were part of the questioning.

Get caught up, quickly. T.M. Landry garnered national attention in recent years when its videos of students getting word of their acceptance into Ivy League universities went viral. The Times’ November report included multiple allegations of emotional stress and physical abuse at the hands of school founder Mike Landry, who pleaded guilty to simple battery against a student in 2013 and was sentenced to a year of supervised probation. Landry initially denied the guilty plea to the paper and later lied about specifics of the incident, but reporters accessed court records accusing him of choking, slapping and slamming a 12-year-old boy onto the floor, and then putting his foot on the child’s head. The November story went on to document local law enforcement’s failure to adequately investigate at least one allegation, and in recent months more students have come forward with allegations of abuse. Louisiana State Police is now in charge of that investigation, which includes about a dozen allegations.

The Times’ latest reporting cites multiple people contacted by the FBI, which seems to have opened an inquiry after the national newspaper found numerous instances of transcript fraud, including allegations Mike and his wife, Tracey, manipulated student transcripts by changing grades, claiming students took classes they didn’t, and listing participation in school clubs that don’t exist. Some students told the newspaper the Landrys fabricated stories of hardship that played on negative racial stereotypes to get the attention of admissions officials at prestigious schools.

After the fallout from the November Times story, which led to a steep decline in enrollment, the school hired a New Orleans law firm, Couhig Partners, to conduct an internal investigation, which was overseen by Paul Pastorek, a former Louisiana superintendent of education who is a friend of T.M. Landry board Chairman Greg Davis. The law firm’s report fell far short of being comprehensive — none of the students who alleged abuse were interviewed, the records from Landry’s 2013 guilty plea were not obtained, and it did not look into the school’s finances — but it did support some of what the Times story uncovered, like corporal punishment, discrepancies in transcripts and made-up class rankings. It also noted times when the Landrys contradicted each other. The school has chosen to tout a more glowing four-page summary of the inquiry written by Pastorek and has made excuses for some of the more adverse findings in the broader, 23-page report.

Davis stays on message. Despite some damaging findings of the internal review, Davis, a staunch and respected education activist, continued his passionate defense of the school Tuesday on KPEL’s The Ross Report. “The allegations in that piece of paper are false,” he said of The New York Times. “I’m here to tell your listening audience that they should not take [at] face value [what’s in] The New York Times as true the same way that they shouldn’t take it when The New York Times is attacking our president, Donald Trump.”

The Times interviewed more than 50 people for the initial story and now says it got “scores of calls” from others corroborating what was in the story after it was published. The T.M. Landry stories were written by Justice Department reporter Katie Benner, who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service reporting on workplace sexual harassment, and education reporter Erica Green — both of whom were back in town in recent days and published the Sunday story from Lafayette.

“It was an education and justice story,” Green told host Carol Ross Wednesday, calling in to the local show a day after Davis’ interview. She said that Davis has chosen to vilify the Times rather than address “anything based on the facts that the families presented.”

Benner and Green indicated they will continue to follow the controversial school, which has no state oversight, and hinted that they may be delving further into the now-nonprofit school’s finances and what happened to the quarter of a million dollars it collected in donations last year, much of which was intended for scholarships. The school has acknowledged that none of those monies went to scholarships.