Federal officials have asked three local school districts to comply with their investigation into possible violations of laws promoting business competition.
The school districts, Rock Hill, York and Chester, don't appear to be the focus of the investigation, according to school officials and an attorney representing two of the districts.
But the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust division has subpoenaed records that outline the districts' involvement in a federal program that helps public schools and libraries pay for Internet connections, said Tom Barlow of Childs & Halligan, the Columbia law firm representing the Rock Hill and Chester County school districts.
The federal program, called e-rate, provides discounts for schools to build file servers, software and wiring for computer networks. Schools apply for the discounts, which range from 20 percent to 90 percent and are based on the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches. The program was designed to give the neediest schools the most help.
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Developed in 1996, e-rate has drawn criticism for insufficient government oversight and rampant fraud, problems highlighted in a 2003 report by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona said the agency has ongoing antitrust investigations involving the e-rate program, but she couldn't comment on specific cases.
A former California education consultant was sentenced last month to seven-and-a-half years in prison for e-rate-related crimes in seven states, including South Carolina, according to a March news release from the Justice Department.
The consultant scammed the government by exaggerating the cost of equipment and services covered under e-rate to pay for items that weren't funded by the program. She also misrepresented the amount school districts could pay for these projects and rigged bids to favor vendors she knew. The in-state case involved the Jasper County school district.
Barlow said he's familiar with the e-rate program's troubled history. But he doesn't know whom the Justice Department is eyeing with the recent subpoenas.
"We don't have any reason to suspect, at this point, that there are any school district employees in any of the school districts we represent that are being targeted by the investigation or anything like that," he said.
The Jasper, Williamsburg and Hampton 1 school districts also were subpoenaed, Barlow said. Other districts also might have received the DOJ's request, but Barlow said he only knew about his firm's clients.
The Justice Department has requested all documents related to the e-rate program, Barlow said, including bids and correspondence between vendors and consultants for the past several years.
Chester County schools Superintendent Larry Heath said the subpoena caught him off guard last week.
"We don't know whether some vendor has filed a complaint ... feeling that they didn't get their fair share of the e-rate business, or whether this is some individual," Heath said. "We don't know."
York schools Superintendent Russell Booker said his district received a subpoena several days ago for e-rate records. He also said his district isn't the focus of the investigation, but he said he couldn't comment beyond that.
Rock Hill schools spokeswoman Elaine Baker referred all questions to the district's attorneys.
The Fort Mill and Clover school districts have not been subpoenaed for this case, district officials said.