Power Players: Pennsylvania's top political donors, 2011-2012

Ten wealthy Pennsylvanians, including a husband supporting his wife for political office and a gay man seeking equality, contributed nearly $9 million to their favorite candidates. PublicSource, working with the Investigative News Network, identified the 10 biggest campaign contributors in the state using state and federal campaign data.

5
Photo by Rebecca Barger/

Vahan Gureghian, Gladwyne, PA

Entrepreneur, Founder Charter School Management Inc.

Vahan H. Gureghian, 57, who depicts himself as an entrepreneur on his website, started Charter School Management Inc. in 1999, and has expanded the company to nine states and management of 150 charter schools.

The first school started by the Gladwyne lawyer was Chester Community Charter School in the beleaguered industrial town near Philadelphia. It is Pennsylvania’s largest charter school, with 2,600 students on two campuses, and about half of the school district’s enrollment.

“Most charter school founders and operators are educators, not lawyers, administrators, or finance managers,” the CSMI website says. The company runs “back office” operations, like budgeting and financial management. The company states that it eliminates inefficiencies and allows educators to focus on teaching.

In Chester, Gureghian’s company owns the buildings, employs the teachers and runs the school. Taxpayers foot the bill, paying the non-profit charter school. The school then pays a management fee to the CSMI.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently closed an investigation of the Chester Community Charter School, ending an inquiry that began in July 2011, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The investigation had focused on suspected testing irregularities at charter schools across the state.

On Sept. 21, the department said that the investigation was closed but that a number of schools would continue to be monitored, according to the Inquirer.

Gureghian’s campaign contributions mostly back Republicans. Most of his campaign contributions since 2011 have supported local candidates and party committees in Delaware and Montgomery counties, but his influence extends to Harrisburg.

He served on the transition team of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, having contributed $334,286 to his election, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Gureghian has reportedly sought legislation that would exempt vendors like CSMI from the public records law.

In 2007, Gureghian built a 30,000-square-foot, French chateau-style mansion in Gladwyne that received attention in a number of publications, including Mother Jones. The house had 10 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, a two-lane bowling alley, wine room, media room, 200-capacity great hall, several bars and a moat, according to Mother Jones.

Last year, he paid $28.9 million for oceanfront property in Palm Beach, on which he has proposed building a 20,000-square-foot mansion, the Palm Beach Daily News reported.

In 2009, 18-year-old Kenny Forder of New Jersey posted photos of the Gladwyne mansion on his Homes of the Rich website. Gureghian’s lawyer responded with a cease and desist letter, stating that teenager had violated Gureghian’s privacy, demanding that the photos be removed and threatening a lawsuit.

The letter is posted on the Homes of the Rich website. The photos were removed.

He sued the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2009 claiming the newspaper had libeled him in stories that raised questions about the financing of the Chester charter school. The lawsuit said Brian P. Tierney, then the newspaper publisher, used the stories to retaliate against Gureghian over failed business ventures. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case in July.

Gureghian also runs a foundation that gives high school and college scholarships to Chester students, serves on the advisory council of Villanova University Business School, and sits on the boards of the University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.

He did not respond to a request for comment.

Notable contributions in 2011 and 2012:

  • $215,285 to Montgomery County Commission candidates Bruce Castor Jr. and Jenny Brown.
  • $132,035 to the Montgomery County Republican Committee.
  • $117,500 to the House Republican Campaign Committee.
  • $110,000 to the Republican Committee of Lower Merion and Narberth.
  • Contact Bill Heltzel at 412-315-0265 or bheltzel@publicsource.org

Total contributions: $806,120

111 donations: 48 to candidates and 63 to committees

List of contributions

Sources: Center for Responsive Politics, National Institute on Money in State Politics, Federal Elections Commission and Pennsylvania Department of State.

Credits:PublicSource would like to thank The Center for Investigative Reporting for the use of their political contributions app, Rainmaker. The Investigative News Network coordinated the work between the many organizations sharing information for this project. Reporters Halle Stockton, Emily DeMarco and Reid Fraizer also contributed to this project.