Attorney general declines request to investigate school board

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 10, 2014 

The state's attorney general's office has declined a Muscogee County School Board member's request to investigate an alleged violation of the open meetings law and an alleged false report to law enforcement.

Cathy Williams, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative,made the allegations in a Jan. 2 letter

• 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 12 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 local political consultant Frank Myers had threatened "one or more board members," Williams wrote.

Boren referred that request to the GBI, 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 64-year history. That contract was renewed at the board's Jan. 21 meeting.

In response to Williams' request for an investigation, David S. McLaughlin, senior assistant attorney general, wrote a Jan. 28 letter addressed to Williams.

"Georgia law requires that a civil action to invalidate an Open Meetings violation be filed within 90 days of the violation or six months of when it is discovered if not immediately discovered," McLaughlin wrote. "The alleged violation in this matter occurred in February 2013 and was immediately known. … Based on the lapse of time from the alleged violation and the fact that the GBI has otherwise found inadequate evidence to criminally prosecute this matter, we do not believe the alleged Open Meetings violation is, as a practical matter, civilly or criminally capable of successful prosecution and will not be pursuing such action."

Regarding the alleged false report to law enforcement, McLaughlin continued in his letter to Williams, "As you know, that investigation did not reveal criminal conduct and the GBI and I closed our files on that matter in 2013. I spoke with the GBI regarding your new allegation and we do not believe further criminal investigation is warranted."

Williams emailed the Ledger-Enquirer on Tuesday her reaction to the decision.

"The elected officials in Georgia have been put 'on notice' by this Attorney General that he is going to scrutinize the use of executive privilege and has done so on several occasions," she wrote. "I am disappointed he chose not to offer an opinion of a valid question to help all elected officials further understand how he interprets the Sunshine Law in Georgia. It could have been an excellent case study to bring further clarification on what his thought process is."

Varner said the decision to not investigate didn't surprise him.

"I never thought the meeting that the board had last February was an illegal meeting in the first place," he said.

Varner called the allegation that he provided a false report to the GBI "ludicrous and just not based on anything factual. In fact, I'm not sure what it was based on. It came out of the dark, and it was a bit shocking."

Phillips wasn't reached for comment.

Varner said this should be the last news item in this dispute.

"One would hope when the attorney general declines to take it further that it puts a nail in this thing and seals it shut, because it was silly and I think unnecessary in the first place," he said. "However, there may be others that might not feel that way.

"But hopefully this silences all of this and allows us to move on to frankly more important things this board and community have to deal with for our education system."

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