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Minister in ‘rent-a-protester’ flap offers to open his books

Rev. Roosevelt Watkins Bethlehem Star Church. File Pho| Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Rev. Roosevelt Watkins of Bethlehem Star Church. File Photo | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 29, 2012 8:08AM

A minister in the eye of the “rent-a-protester” storm has offered to open the books of his non-profit agency to prove it spent taxpayer money appropriately — and not on packing school closing hearings with paid protesters.

“Small stipends” offered to school protesters did not come from after-school and safe-passage grants the HOPE Organization received from Chicago Public Schools, the group’s CEO, Rev. Roosevelt Watkins III, told the Chicago Sun-Times in an email.

“I have called CPS and invited them to review the organization’s accounting and verify the grant has been spent appropriately,’’ Watkins, pastor of Bethlehem Star Church, wrote the Sun-Times Thursday evening.

Earlier that same day, the Sun-Times reported that Schools Inspector General James Sullivan was looking into charges that cash-strapped protesters were paid $25 to $50 to pile into buses outside HOPE’s Englewood office and attend school closing hearings. Some carried pre-made signs; others read from pre-crafted scripts, protesters said.

Two men told the Sun-Times they were misled about the subject of the hearings, ended up disagreeing with the pro-closing position they were supposed to convey, and were paid later at HOPE’s office by a woman who plucked envelopes filled with $25 in cash from a container full of envelopes.

Watkins previously told the Sun-Times he organized busloads of protesters to attend closing hearings, but said they should have received “training” on “community organizing” first — something two protesters said they never received.

Said Watkins: “Those that did not receiving the training should not have received a stipend.’’ The stipend money, Watkins said, came from “a coalition of clergy” who have “money set aside for outreach in the community.’’ Only “private money’’ and not church or HOPE money was used, he told the Sun-Times previously.

“Like every other neighborhood, members of the faith community engage residents, parishioners and activists on how to affect change, including participating in community meetings on issues of significant importance,’’ Watkins added later in an email to the Sun-Times. “Often, for their time and involvement in training programs and activities, we provide a small stipend to help offset expenses such as transportation, food and childcare.’’

Wrote Watkins in his email: “No one should be surprised Chicago’s faith community is working to empower parents and residents to speak out against failing schools.’’

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll confirmed Friday that Watkins called Renaldo Kyles, director of CPS faith initiatives, Thursday night to say he was issuing a statement inviting CPS to review his books.

“The IG [Schools Inspector General] has already taken steps to look into this matter, and we await his findings,’’ Carroll said.

HOPE has received $1.4 million in CPS funds since 2010, CPS records show. It also won a city contract worth at least $61,000 in January 2011 for “out-of-school-time opportunities.’’ Meanwhile, Watkins has joined a long list of ministers who have supported Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s school reform agenda.

During a school board meeting Wednesday, Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) urged board members to wipe the comments of what he called “paid protesters” from the closing hearing record. Such efforts “subvert our public process,’’ said Fioretti, who added that what he saw at the Crane hearing he attended was “embarrassing.’’

Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said later that same day that he knew nothing about the so-called “rent-a-protesters.’’ Brizard pointed instead to 9,000 people who joined a telephone townhall with Brizard organized last week by Stand for Children, a non-profit group that backed a school reform law that weakened teacher tenure protections and made it harder for the Chicago Teachers Union to strike.

Of those parents who called in, Brizard said, “That’s the kind of people I listen to.’’

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