Muscogee County School Board member requests Georgia attorney general to investigate

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 8, 2014 

A Muscogee County School Board member has asked the state attorney general to investigate whether the board broke Georgia law.

In a letter dated Jan. 2, Cathy Williams, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative, requested Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens to determine the following:

• Whether the board's Feb. 18, 2013, closed session "was held without proper grounds, included discussions on matters outside the legitimate scope of the executive session, and included an inappropriate vote."

• Whether board chairman Rob Varner and then-Superintendent John Phillips provided a false report to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

That closed session 11 months ago was when the board decided to ask Columbus police Chief Ricky Boren to investigate allegations that state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and board critic Frank Myers had threatened "one or more board members," Williams wrote.

Boren referred that request to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which interviewed school board members, McKoon and Myers. In September, the attorney general's office confirmed the GBI's probe uncovered no crime.

The allegation against McKoon is that he threatened to withhold state funding from the school district if the board didn't vote to end its no-bid contract for legal services with the Columbus firm Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild LLP. In addition to the questionable ability for one state senator to withhold state funding, the attorney general found no "quid pro quo," no payoff that under Georgia law would be bribery.

The allegation against Myers came from a text he sent to board member John Wells: "I'm taking you out," Myers wrote, alluding to Wells being up for re-election this year. The attorney general concluded that was free speech, not an illegal threat.

McKoon and Myers, who are lawyers, denied the allegations but have maintained their opposition to the no-bid contract, which has made Hatcher Stubbs the board's only legal counsel in its 63-year history. That contract is expected to be up for renewal at the board's Jan. 21 meeting.

The question of whether Varner and Phillips provided a false report to the GBI, which would be a criminal offense, is their allegation of McKoon's threat, Williams said Wednesday.

Varner emailed the Ledger-Enquirer his response to Williams' letter.

"I do not believe the Board's executive session discussion last February violated the Open Meetings Act," Varner wrote. "… Ms. Williams' suggestion or accusation that I provided false information to the GBI is absolutely incorrect."

Phillips wasn't reached for comment.

Williams said she wrote the request for an investigation 11 months after the closed meeting because she still isn't satisfied with the way board attorney Jorge Vega of Hatcher Stubbs has handled the controversy. She said Vega recused himself from the Feb. 18 discussion in closed session because he also represents the Courier, a local newspaper.

Williams said she subsequently asked Vega to write the attorney general and ask two questions:

• Can the board go into closed session for a "legal matter" if no lawsuit has been filed or threatened?

• After the board's attorney recuses himself, can the board still discuss that "legal matter" in closed session?

"He only asked the first question," Williams said.

Although the issue is nearly a year old, Williams said it's still worth trying to shed light on the dark matter.

"I want answers," she said. "How do we interpret the executive session privilege? Tell me if this was appropriate? As soon as you go into executive session, you're saying the public isn't allowed to know. That's pretty big, so it better be appropriate."

Olens' spokeswoman, Lauren Kane, confirmed the attorney general's office has received Williams' letter "but cannot comment any further."

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