Early last week, before the start of his ongoing divorce hearing with dramatics suited for a soap opera, former Cowboy Deion Sanders tweeted the above photo. It looks like a boring portrait of three wide-smiling, well-dressed men. In fact, the photo is quite revealing of the tangle of lies behind Prime Prep Academy, the charter school he co-founded and the subject of this week's cover story.
"DL WALLACE BISHOP MAYS and Primd [presumably, he means 'Prime', his nickname]," the tweet reads. The three men -- Deion Sanders, his business partner and Prime Prep Chairman D.L. Wallace, and Bishop F.R. Mays, the leader of Charity Church, which will house the Prime Prep Academy Fort Worth campus -- look rather chummy, no?
Sanders tweeted the photo two days before the Observer detailed the school's labyrinth of suspect business deals, personal connections and blinding star power. A major piece of the story centers on Bishop F.R. Mays, who in a bizarre interview gave detailed information about the school before denying altogether that he knew Sanders and Wallace.
The school's original application included a lease-purchase arrangement in which Prime Prep would lease Charity Church classrooms for as much as $10,500 a month. The rent would be paid to Pinnacle Commercial Properties, which according to the contract owned the space in question. The lease named Wallace as Prime Prep's Chairman and Mays, who is the bishop of Charity Church, as president of Pinnacle.
If it sounds fishy, it is. Tex records show that Pinnacle Property doesn't own the Charity Church space (it's owned by the church itself.) And corporate filings name both Mays and Wallace as officers of Pinnacle Property. If you're keeping score at home, that means Mays and Wallace were trying to collect rent on a building they didn't own, putting each in position to profit on the nonprofit organizations they claim to serve.
When the conflict of interest was flagged by the TEA, Prime Prep didn't clarify the arrangement; it instead removed the lease entirely and replaced it a "donation" from Charity Church. But when I met him outside his church last month, Mays said that Prime Prep leases its Fort Worth campus from his church. He would not disclose the fee. "Noo ma'am," he repeated when asked about the cost.
"They are leasing the church from us. There's no donation. Nobody's donating this church," Mays insisted. If that's the case, the TEA has some paperwork on file that's inaccurate at best, completely fraudulent at worst.
Earlier in our conversation, Mays had been happy to gush about how busy "we" were with hiring Prime Prep staff and faculty and how "we" had just finished interviewing dozens of potential teachers. Once the conversation turned to the lease arrangement, the "we" comments ceased immediately.
"I can tell you everything about Charity. I can tell you nothing about Prime Prep Academy. I can tell you nothing about Deion Sanders. I can tell you nothing about anybody else, 'cause I don't know them personally," Mays told the Observer.
Yet if you look carefully at the lower left corner of the photo, you can see the silver metal posts of the Prime Prep Academy yard signs kept in the church's lobby. The day I visited Mays, he asked someone at the church -- a pastor, I believe -- for a card with contact information for the church in case I had follow-up questions. The pastor clarified whether I needed a card for Charity Church or for Prime Prep. I told him I would like both and he gladly obliged, having both at-the-ready.
I called Charity Church to follow up with Mays, who refused to give me a direct number. He never returned my calls. Then again, while other charter school leaders returned my calls immediately, Prime Prep has been stalwart in its silence. Wallace and Sanders have refused to be interviewed.
Read more in this week's cover story.