Muscogee County School District Interim Superintendent John Phillips and school board chairman Rob Varner asked Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren to request a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe into alleged threats regarding the school board's contract with law firm Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis, & Rothschild.
Phillips and Varner told GBI Special Agent in Charge Wayne Smith they were requesting the investigation on behalf of the school board, sources revealed Friday.
Citywide school board member Cathy Williams said Smith interviewed her Friday morning and specifically asked whether she'd ever felt coerced or beholden to Republican State Sen. Josh McKoon or Columbus attorney Frank Myers. She told him no, she said.
The GBI in a statement Thursday said it initiated the probe after Boren sent a March 4 letter requesting it. School district leaders needed a local law enforcement agency to formally request the GBI's assistance.
GBI spokesman John Bankhead said Boren "asked the GBI to conduct an investigation based on information he received from certain members of the Muscogee County School Board regarding alleged threats relating to the board's legal contract. The GBI is conducting a preliminary review to determine if a full investigation is warranted."
Agents have been questioning Muscogee County school board members and others who might have knowledge of any such threats. The GBI also has been scouring board representatives' personal cellphones seeking text messages.
Boren has declined to comment, referring inquiries to the GBI. Bankhead has declined to discuss specifics.
Varner on Friday declined to comment on reports he and Phillips requested the GBI probe. "There's not anything about this investigation I can talk about," he said.
Phillips echoed that: "I can't get into specifics. I would be glad to be completely transparent when it's an appropriate time to do so. This is an ongoing investigation right now, and I'm not going to make comments that may, in one way or the other, interfere in the GBI's investigation."
Williams said the only alleged threat she has heard of involves a text message Myers sent District 2 representative John Wells.
Myers said he sent the message after Wells "flipflopped" on considering legal services other than Hatcher Stubbs. Myers has been an outspoken critic of the fees Hatcher Stubbs bills the board on its no-bid contract.
Hatcher Stubbs has held the school board account since the city and county school districts merged in 1950. The school superintendent recommends the law firm to the board, which has not sought competing proposals from others.
Myers said he was frustrated because Wells wasn't responding to calls or messages, so he let Wells know he had lost Myers' support in a text message that read:
"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?"
Myers said that's typical in politics: People disappointed with an elected official threaten to vote him out.
"My alleged threat is constitutionally protected free speech that happens every day in this country," he said Friday. Of the entire board, he added, "If they don't straighten out this lawyer business, they've got to worry about the voters, not Frank Myers."
Of Wells in particular, he said: "Here's a guy who is a walking billboard for term limits, whom I thought I had a good relationship with, and now I find I don't."
He previously backed Wells, writing Wells' 2010 re-election announcement, he said. Messages left on Wells' home phone were not returned. Wells has served on the school board for 26 years, according to Ledger-Enquirer archives.
McKoon said he never threatened the school board or the district as a whole: "That is absurd. That has never happened."
His critics have alleged he wants Hatcher Stubbs to lose the school district's account so he can become the board's in-house legal counsel. McKoon said that would be a full-time job for a political subdivision of the state, and by law he would have to give up his Senate seat. He has no intention of doing that, he said.
Williams said McKoon couldn't get the job anyway because he doesn't specialize in school law. That's why the board so long has relied on Hatcher Stubbs, she said: It has the expertise.
Jorge Vega, the Hatcher Stubbs attorney representing the school board, said the law firm was not involved in requesting the GBI probe.
Charles Staples, the law firm's managing partner, declined to comment on the GBI investigation.
McKoon said Friday that whether the board hires Hatcher Stubbs isn't the issue. He by principle is opposed to government contracts awarded with no competition, he said. "I have been critical at every level of no-bid, sole-source contracting practices," he said.
Any claims he has threatened to withhold state funding from the district if it did not alter its practices are "absolutely not true," he said.
He has tried to get the school district a break on the fees it pays the city to collect property taxes, to save the district more than $1 million, but the district and the city declined to support that proposal, he said.
"My public record when it comes to funding the Muscogee County School District is clear," he said.
At Tuesday's board meeting, Myers in an address to the board said a survey of comparable school districts showed Muscogee County spends more than twice the average per student in legal fees. Muscogee pays $20.77 per student; others pay $9.60 per student, he said.
Phillips on Friday stood by Hatcher Stubbs, saying Myers' attacks on the law firm's legal fees are misleading:
"I think the way that they're being characterized is completely untrue, in the way it was represented to the public by dividing the number of children into the legal fees. You can't do that. A first-grader would know that. You could have a school district with 30 kids, and have one $300,000 lawsuit. You have to drill down; you have to understand the nature of the legal fees and the services that they're providing, the complexity of the cases, all of those kind of things."
Legal costs can soar on a single lawsuit, he said. "Some of these cases can cost a half a million dollars before you blink," he said.
At Tuesday's meeting, Myers said Muscogee's legal fees have more than doubled from $323,254 in 2005 to $666,028 in 2012, yet some classes don't have enough textbooks for students.
Phillips' office in an email Friday said it has checked with schools and no students lack textbooks.
Though Phillips declined to comment on the GBI probe, district spokeswoman Valerie Fuller sent this email to reporters Friday evening:
"The focus of the investigation is not the Board of Education. In fact, it was the Board of Education that requested that the GBI investigate others who are inappropriately trying to influence elected Board officials acting in their official capacity. This investigation has no relationship to the education of our children."