GBI: Messages show extent of personal spats between Myers, Muscogee County School Board members

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 19, 2013 

Look forward to more Muscogee County school board intrigue in 2014, as the threats that spawned a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe this summer have not ended.

More trouble ahead is presaged by what attorney and board critic Frank Myers told GBI Agent Wayne Smith on Aug. 19 about John Wells, the board's longtime District 2 representative who's up for re-election next year:

"My falling out with John was when I just figured out he was lying to me, and that's why I sent him that text saying, 'I'm taking you out,' and agent, I want you to understand something: Next year, I'm taking him out," Myers said, essentially admitting one accusation for which he was under scrutiny:

Did he threaten board members who wouldn't back his push to remove Columbus law firm Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild as the district's sole attorneys?

Yes. Myers on Aug. 19 repeated what he texted Wells Jan. 19, right before the board voted on whether to maintain its exclusive relationship with the law firm that has represented the district for more than 60 years:

"Since I can't seem to get you to call me back, let me spell it out for you. If the school board is status quo on the issues important to ME after Tuesday night, I'm taking you out in 2014. Got it?"

That's a threat, but is it illegal? No, the Georgia attorney general concluded after reviewing the GBI report. Threatening to unseat an incumbent is free speech.

It would be illegal if Myers got something of value in return for board members' booting out Hatcher-Stubbs. Myers' school board accusers alleged either he or his political ally state Sen. Josh McKoon, also an attorney, wanted to take the schools' legal business themselves.

The GBI found no evidence of that: McKoon, who has higher political ambitions, would have to resign his Georgia Senate seat to work for a local government receiving state funding.

Myers, who for years has run sales tax campaigns and individual candidates' bids for office, wants to become a full-time political consultant, not a full-time lawyer.

The attorney general concluded their crusade to open the district's legal services for bid had no "quid pro quo," no payoff that under Georgia law would be bribery.

Board members alleged Myers made a threat beyond unseating incumbents: He told them McKoon would withhold state funds from the school district if the board didn't do what he wanted. McKoon denies this and, as a sole state senator, he could not execute such a threat.

So the GBI and attorney general concluded Myers and McKoon broke no law.

Next year's school board elections so far are set for July 15, though the Georgia General Assembly may shift to May 20 to match federal primaries. If that happens, qualifying for the school board will begin 9 a.m. March 3.

So the GBI probe has not brought such school board issues to an end. The end is not in sight. The beginning also is hard to pinpoint.

For many voters, the board's ground zero was a meeting May 21, 2012, about three months after then-Superintendent Susan Andrews announced she would retire at the end of June, her relationship with some board members having soured.

Five board representatives that night chose to show they had no confidence in Andrews by voting down all of her personnel appointments, without discussion, with the nominees present. Those anticipating promotion were shocked. Some had family waiting to congratulate them. Some cried, with news cameras capturing their distress.

People across town were outraged that board members spanking the outgoing superintendent would use district employees for a paddle.

By then Myers, in his quest to end the board's decades-old relationship with Hatcher-Stubbs, already planned to recruit candidates for his "Boot the Board" campaign against incumbents. But he had not foreseen the board's wrecking its public image in a single night. It was a gift.

Three of the so-called "bloc of five" voting down Andrews' personnel recommendations were up for re-election: James Walker, Noreen Marvets and Pat Hugley Green. The other two, Wells and Beth Harris, were up in 2014.

The election was July 31, 2012. Walker and Marvets lost to candidates Myers backed: Shannon Smallman beat Marvets to take District 7; Athavia "A.J." Senior took Walker's District 3. In District 1, Hugley Green beat challenger Al Stewart. In District 5, Rob Varner defeated challenger Brian McCabe.

Myers, who during the campaign had hidden his role in "Boot the Board," boasted of its victories -- a reference for his future as a full-time political consultant.But the best-laid plans of political gurus oft go awry.

In the months to follow, Senior became skeptical of Myers' assertions Hatcher-Stubbs was padding the district's legal bills. His aggressive lobbying alienated board members he tried to enlist in his cause. And his repeatedly pulling McKoon into his Hatcher-Stubbs crusade gave his enemies grounds to call in the GBI.

It's a long and complicated saga, but particular turning points mark its trail:

During her March 15 interview with the GBI, Senior said that after the 2012 election, she heard nothing from Myers until the fall. Around Thanksgiving he invited her to a meeting at his home in Hilton Heights, where he served Smokey Pig barbecue and briefed her on how Hatcher-Stubbs was overcharging the district. Assisting him were Mc-Koon and former Hatcher-Stubbs attorney Neal Callahan, she said.

Senior told the GBI she concluded Myers had no evidence: "So I left there thinking: Are they crazy, or do they think I'm crazy?" When she told them she would ask Hatcher-Stubbs about the issue, they told her not to, or "you will show your hand."

In Atlanta Nov. 28-Dec. 1, 2012, board members went for annual training at the Georgia School Boards Association conference. Senior later told the GBI of two encounters there:

In one, she met with Smallman and Williams, and Williams told them District 6 representative Mark Cantrell would be offered the vice chairmanship if he voted to oust Hatcher-Stubbs.

In the other, Senior met Hugley Green and told her she was under pressure to vote against the law firm. Hugley Green later told the GBI Senior was scared. Senior told the GBI she was just trying to decide what to do.

Senior and Hugley Green became confidants.

On Jan. 8, Senior's daughter Jonai Senior applied for a job at Fort Middle School, in Hugley Green's District 3. Myers later would claim this was evidence Senior's vote for Hatcher-Stubbs was bought. In August he told the GBI this could be bribery.

The tension between Myers and Senior snapped when Senior decided to support Varner for board chairman over Williams, when the board convened on Jan. 14, 2013, a work session when the chair would be elected. When Varner told Williams he had the votes, Senior soon got a text from Myers:

"So you have just set off a nuclear bomb?" he asked. Other texts followed: "So you just ignore people who get you where you are? A.J., you haven't thought this through. You are apparently about to go down a path that will define (negatively unfortunately) your service on the school board. Please tell me I am wrong."

At one point she texted back: "Chill Frank. I will call u later."

Hugley Green reported Senior's worries to Phillips. Phillips met with Senior to discuss Myers on Jan. 17.

As the first regular board meeting on Jan. 22 approached, Myers turned up the heat.

On Jan. 19, he sent the text threatening to take Wells out in 2014,

On Jan. 21, the Monday of Barack Obama's second inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he and McKoon met with Senior at her home.

She refused to reconsider backing Hatcher-Stubbs. She later alleged Myers warned her McKoon in turn might withhold state funds from the school district. Senior later told the GBI she thought Myers was going to cry.

Senior told Hugley Green of the meeting that same day. Hugley Green later told the GBI she found the threat comical: McKoon couldn't cut state funds if he wanted.

When the Jan. 22 meeting came, Myers sent out scripts with a motion and talking points for dislodging Hatcher-Stubbs. Harris got one. So did Smallman. But only Williams used it -- reading it off her phone, some observers said.

It didn't matter. Myers didn't have the votes. He'd made too many enemies.

On Jan. 23, the Courier, a local tabloid, began filing open-records requests seeking Myers' texts. Twice it asked for texts on district-issued cellphones. But Myers' texts had gone to personal cellphones.

On Jan. 25, Hatcher-Stubbs attorneys Jorge Vega and Greg Ellington met to discuss Myers' threats with Phillips, Harris, Senior and Wells at Hatcher-Stubbs' Corporate Center offices.

On Jan. 29, Vega informed the Courier it would find nothing of value in texts to district-issued phones, which Smallman and Senior didn't have yet, anyway.

On Jan. 30, the Courier specifically asked for any texts to board members involving official action from Jan. 1 to Jan. 24. In his response Vega volunteered that the Courier must mean even board members' personal cell phones. He immediately set about complying with the open-records request, asking district technicians to retrieve the data. All board members had to turn in their cell phones, regardless of what personal data might be on them.

In an email to Vega on Feb. 4, Williams responded in part: "With all due respect, I feel that you, and the firm, have a conflict of interest. It is no secret that Frank Myers has been very … vocal about the cost of legal fees the district pays Hatcher Stubbs, which he has stated, as an attorney and taxpayer, are out of line. … I have had feedback from several attorneys this afternoon who have questioned the advice you have provided us about surrendering personal information. … I would like the district to provide me with independent counsel to discuss the legality of this. …"

That same day, Vega told the Courier he could have the texts by Feb. 11.

On Feb. 5, Vega in an email took umbrage at Williams' claiming the firm had a conflict of interest: "Cathy: There is no conflict of interest in this matter. The sole issue involved in this latest request is whether the board members are required under the Open Records Act to produce messages that they received or sent while engaging in their official capacity even if the form of transmission was not on a district-issued device. … I find it troublesome that rather than discuss this matter with me you have chosen to contact other attorneys for their input."

On Feb. 14, the Courier alleged Myers was bribing board members to get the district's legal business.

On Feb. 18, the Courier claimed Myers' crusade against Hatcher-Stubbs was a "connect the dots" conspiracy involving McKoon, Williams, Smallman, Callahan and the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

That night, the board went into a private closed meeting to discuss a "legal matter."

The first thing it discussed was that Hatcher-Stubbs did have a conflict of interest: The firm previously had represented the Courier. It had to recuse itself from advising the board on the publication's open-records requests.

Then Pat Hugley Green announced the board by consensus was calling in the GBI to investigate Myers and McKoon. She warned board members their ethics policy prohibited their publicly discussing what just happened in executive session.

Williams later would question whether this closed session was legal, as board attorneys had recused themselves on a matter involving the Courier right before Hugley Green announced the board would seek a GBI probe into allegations in the Courier.

The next day, Feb. 19, Phillips met with Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren to request the GBI probe, as the board lacked the authority to do that on its own. Boren set up a Feb. 21 meeting with Smith, the region's GBI special agent in charge. Phillips and Varner made the pitch to Smith in Boren's office.

In March, Senior, Wells and Harris each filed an ethics complaint saying McKoon had threatened them.

Their statements were dated March 1 for Senior's, March 5 for Wells' and March 15 for Harris'. Each was notarized by Karen Jones, the school board secretary.

The Senate Ethics Committee would dismiss these complaints March 28.

Meanwhile the GBI came in: On March 4, Boren wrote a letter requesting the GBI probe. Smith met with Phillips that day, and then the questioning of board members went in this order:

• On March 11, Smith questioned Smallman in the morning and Hugley Green in the afternoon.

• On March 12, he questioned Cantrell in the afternoon and Harris in the evening.

• On March 13, he questioned Wells after lunch and District 4 representative Naomi Buckner that afternoon.

• On March 13, he queried Williams in the morning and Senior in the afternoon.

• On March 15, he questioned Varner.

• Smith questioned Phillips on March 20.

Over this period Myers continued his outspoken criticism at board meetings. On March 12, after arguing Muscogee paid more for legal fees than comparable districts, Myers had a face-off with Phillips. Myers' presentation had been limited to the customary five minutes. Phillips started to refute it at length.

Myers stood in the audience and interrupted. "Mr. Chairman, how much time does he get?" he asked Varner.

"I have all day," Phillips said, threatening to have a police officer remove Myers from the meeting. The officer walked over to Myers, who sat down.

After talking to the board and to Phillips, the GBI tracked cellphone data to see whether meetings took place where and when witnesses claimed.

On July 16, Smith finally questioned McKoon, who flatly denied accusations he had threatened to cut school funding if the board didn't cut Hatcher-Stubbs loose.

About a month later, on Aug. 19, Smith questioned Myers -- who reiterated he would take Wells out in 2014, and argued the district's giving Athavia Senior's daughter a job at Fort Middle School could be bribery.

Fort Middle School Principal Sonja Coaxum on July 24 recommended the district approve Jonai Senior as an eighth grade language arts teacher, though she had no teaching certificate. The daughter was told to report Aug. 1. Her hiring only lately made headlines when Athavia Senior neglected to recuse herself from voting to employ a list of people that included her daughter. That's against the law.

To legitimize the vote, another will be taken Monday, to comply with state codes.

Meanwhile Myers continues his attacks. At last week's board work session, he again berated board members, alleging Senior, Hugley Green and Phillips made a deal to hire Senior's daughter in exchange for Senior's support on Hatcher-Stubbs.

He also accused the board of breaking Georgia's open meetings law on Feb. 18, when in closed session it decided by "consensus" to have the GBI investigate him.

Williams still questions that meeting, too -- months after she first inquired about its legitimacy.

Back on March 25, her questions led to Vega's sending the attorney general a letter regarding the private session. He wrote the board discussed a "legal matter."

The topic was Myers' threats: "The board members sought legal advice as to what legal action they could take in their official capacity to address this concern of possible illegal conduct."

He did not mention the meeting began with the law firm announcing its conflict of interest in matters involving the Courier. He wrote that Williams had questioned only whether the board session was legally closed if it concerned no immediate "pending or potential litigation."

He argued the board complied with the law because it discussed legal action against Myers and McKoon.

Williams only recently got Vega's letter to the attorney general. She got it in an email from David Lewis, the school superintendent who succeeded Phillips.

On Oct. 1, she emailed Lewis to complain Vega had asked the wrong question:

"My contention is, and was, that once legal counsel recused themselves from being able to offer 'privileged consultation' or participate in 'confidential discussion' they vacated the rationale for the executive session and we no longer were covered by executive session privilege and the meeting should have immediately ceased; any discussion subsequent to that is not protected and should have occurred in public."

As school board wars rage on into 2014, that remains among the lingering issues even a seven-month GBI investigation hasn't resolved.

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service