UPDATE: School board member Athavia Senior says Sen. McKoon has "a lot of nerve"

McKoon criticizes board members going to San Diego conference

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 9, 2013 

A state senator and a Muscogee school board representative accused each other of lying Wednesday in the latest salvo in the battle over the board’s no-bid contract with Columbus law firm Hatcher-Stubbs.

After the Georgia Senate Ethics Committee dismissed complaints three school board members filed against him, Republican state Sen. Josh McKoon held a news conference today at which he not only hit the board with additional criticism of its decisions but said he was considering taking legal action against those who filed complaints.

Contacted by telephone after McKoon spoke to reporters, Athavia Senior said McKoon is the liar.

“I’m appalled he held a press conference knowing he’s wrong,” she said. “That takes a lot of nerve.”

Senior shot back at McKoon for intruding into school board affairs.

“He needs to just shut his mouth,” she said. “Why is he down here in local politics when he’s a state senator? Don’t he have bills and things to be approving? Why is he in this mess – someone of his caliber? Don’t nobody think about that? .. Why is he here? Doesn’t he have more important things to do as a senator?”

McKoon said the notarized statements accompanying the ethics complaints were false, and constituted the crime of false swearing. He singled out District 3 school board representative Senior’s statement as “wholly false.”

Dated March 1 and notarized by Karen Jones, the school board secretary, Senior’s initial statement said she met with McKoon and Columbus attorney Frank Myers at her home on Jan. 14, a date McKoon was quick to note could not be accurate because Jan. 14 was the 2013 Georgia General Assembly’s opening day, when he was in Atlanta.

In her statement, Senior wrote: “During the discussion about Hatcher-Stubbs, Josh McKoon stated, ‘I would not approve funding for the MCSD if you continue with Hatcher Stubbs, because it shows the MCSD cannot handle their money.’”

McKoon later acknowledged meeting with Myers and Senior, but denied her claims: “That is just a fabrication,” he said.

At his news conference Wednesday, he said that fabrication could be a crime, and could be grounds for a lawsuit. But were McKoon to sue on a claim his character was defamed, he would face a high legal hurdle, because he is a public figure who does not enjoy the same privacy and other legal protections of people who aren’t regularly in the public eye.

McKoon also criticized Senior and other board members who are to take a trip to San Diego this weekend for the National School Boards Association conference, which he called a poor spending choice in light of other district needs.

Jones, the board secretary, said some local board members usually attend the annual conference. This year the board members other than Senior expected to go are Mark Cantrell, Pat Hugley Green, Beth Harris and John Wells, along with Superintendent John Phillips.

She said the only money lost on the conference was the $895 registration fee paid for each of two board members, Cathy Williams and Shannon Smallman, who signed up but later decided not to go.

As a senator, McKoon told reporters he intends to work with colleagues in Atlanta to initiate reforms in school governance, perhaps giving local districts the option of electing school superintendents whose policy decisions often are “rubber-stamped” by their boards with little oversight.

McKoon said the legislature also might look into requiring districts to seek bids on contract work that exceeds a threshold amount such as $50,000, and prohibit vendors’ giving expensive gifts to people involved in awarding such contracts.

Though the ethics complaints filed by Senior, Harris and Wells have been dismissed, a GBI review of the threats some board members allege McKoon and Myers made to them continue. McKoon noted Wednesday that the supposed threats as described by the GBI are essentially the same as described in the board members’ ethics complaints.

According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, “certain school board members” yet to be identified pushed for the GBI probe. The GBI has said its month-old investigation is ongoing, but it has yet to question either McKoon or Myers. The agency sought board members’ personal cell phones to extract any messages from Myers or McKoon.

Both the ethics complaints and GBI review came after Myers’ aggressive criticism of the board’s no-bid contract with Hatcher-Stubbs, which he says costs the district too much and should be put up for bid.

HERE'S THE REPORT POSTED TUESDAY:

The Georgia Senate Ethics Committee has dismissed the complaints three Muscogee school board representatives filed last month against state Sen. Josh McKoon.

McKoon held a 2 p.m. news conference Monday to discuss the matter. Ledger-Enquirer.com will post more updates when they become available.

In an April 3 letter from state Sen. Rick Jeffares, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, McKoon was informed an ethics subcommittee met March 27 to discuss the matter, and “after a review of the allegations of the complaints, the subcommittee did not find reasonable grounds to believe that you engaged in improper conduct.”

The subcommittee recommended the full ethics committee dismiss the complaints filed March 21 by board members Beth Harris, Athavia Senior and John Wells.

The full committee met March 28, the 2013 Georgia General Assembly’s last day in session. It accepted the subcommittee’s recommendation and dismissed the complaints, “subject to the complaints being reopened upon discovery of additional evidence or relevant material,” the letter read.

Reached by telephone Tuesday, Senior said she had no comment “at this time.” Harris and Wells could not be reached for comment.

Their complaints alleged that McKoon, while accompanied by Columbus attorney Frank Myers, threatened to withhold state funds from the school district if it maintained its no-bid contract for legal services with Columbus law firm Hatcher-Stubbs.

Myers lately has been an outspoken critic of how much the board pays the law firm without considering other options for legal services. McKoon has long criticized such exclusive, no-bid deals for government contracts.

On Tuesday, McKoon said he expected the complaints to be dismissed. They obviously were intended to weaken his and Myers’ credibility to protect the school board and its policies, he said.

“It seems pretty obvious to me that what’s going on here is there’s been criticism of school board policy, and the policies that they’ve been pursuing are indefensible,” he said. “So rather than get into a discussion of the merits of their policy, they try to pursue this sort of drive-by character assassination….”

The board members’ aim likely was to generate headlines by filing baseless complaints, giving the public the impression the board’s critics lack integrity, he said. “I think that’s pretty plainly what was going on here,” he said. “It’s just pretty petty, gutter politics on the part of some members of the board of education that would rather engage in that than engage in a thoughtful discussion about their procurement and contracting practices.”

According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, “certain school board members” yet to be identified pushed for a GBI probe of threats McKoon and Myers allegedly made to board members regarding state funding – accusations strikingly similar to the ones the Senate Ethics Committee just dismissed.

The GBI has said its month-old investigation is ongoing, but it has yet to question either McKoon or Myers. The agency sought board members’ personal cell phones to extract any messages from Myers or McKoon.

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