Soon after Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus took to the Senate well Friday to say a GBI investigation initiated by Muscogee County School District leaders is another chapter in a long-running dispute, he was served with three ethics complaints from school board members.
The complaints came from John Wells, Athavia Senior and Beth Harris. They alleged McKoon and Columbus attorney Frank Myers said McKoon could withhold state funds from the school district if it maintained its no-bid contract for legal services with Columbus law firm Hatcher-Stubbs.
The statements appended to their state ethics commission complaints 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.
Senior’s was the only complaint to list a specific day and time, saying she met with Myers and McKoon at her home at 10 a.m. Jan. 14. Myers initiated the meeting and invited McKoon, she said.
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McKoon noted Friday that Jan. 14 was the first day of the Georgia General Assembly, and he was at the state capitol in Atlanta for the Senate’s first day. Speaking of the entire Senate, he said he has “about 55 witnesses” who can attest to that.
In her ethics complaint, 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 said he did meet with Senior and Myers, at some point. “I never said anything remotely like what she claims,” he said. “That is just a fabrication.”
Wells, who spelled Myers’ name “Meyers,” said he met with Myers and McKoon for breakfast at Panera Bread. Both told him Hatcher-Stubbs had “grossly overcharged” the district.
Myers and McKoon said they did meet with Wells once at Panera Bread, but that was well over a year ago.
Wells wrote that McKoon told him “there was additional money in Atlanta that he could get which was additional money for MCSD if we use our money here correctly. But, the money would not come to MCSD if we spent foolishly.”
McKoon said his only discussions of school funding with Wells have involved cutting the percentage of tax revenue the district pays Columbus’ city government to collect its property taxes.
Myers said McKoon couldn’t withhold funding on his own: “First of all, I don’t think Josh has that much power.”
Wells complained Myers threatened politically to target incumbents who disagreed with him: “Meyers also said that he helped keep members on the school board if they cooperated and would in fact recruit candidates to run against sitting members who didn’t agree with them.”
Myers thought Wells’ filing an ethics complaint was hilarious: “Can you imagine John Wells’ filing an ethics complaint against somebody else? How funny is that?”
Like McKoon, Myers said their meeting with Wells was over a year ago. McKoon never threatened to withhold state funds, Myers said.
Harris said she met Myers and McKoon at the Crowley & McKoon law office, where Myers told her the district one day would need money, and McKoon “could move funds to help, or, withhold funds — depending on whether or not he considered us to be managing our money wisely. They had already made it clear that continuing to do business with the Hatcher-Stubbs law firm was not their idea of money spent wisely.”
McKoon said Friday that Harris’ complaint never quoted him, but claimed he agreed with something Myers said: “She tries to indicate that I agreed with something that Frank said. I don’t recall him saying anything remotely like what she recounts. ”
In his remarks Friday to the Georgia Senate, McKoon said the board’s requested GBI probe of such alleged threats is just another episode in his long-running disputes over how the district manages money — dating back to his representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit over building a park at the Columbus Public Library.
On what legislators call a “point of personal privilege,” McKoon as he took to the Senate well said he would “discuss a matter that arose last week whose origin runs back a decade.” It did not begin with his challenging the board’s no-bid contract with Hatcher Stubbs.
McKoon said it started with local leaders’ electing to end the Columbus Public Library construction project without building a park he and his clients felt was promised during the library’s 1999 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax campaign.
Said McKoon: “In 2006 the MCSD began to take steps to abandon the learning park. First the Board of Education said no monies were available. Then an Open Records Act request revealed $6.1 million in SPLOST dollars remained unspent. MCSD then invented a needs list to expend those dollars to avoid constructing the park. I agreed to represent six Muscogee County taxpayers who all objected to this illegal diversion of taxpayer dollars. After being dismissed in trial court we appealed, and a unanimous Supreme Court reversed the dismissal, ultimately leading to a settlement. In the first 47 days of litigation the MCSD was charged over $50,000 in legal fees.”
McKoon said afterward he continued to criticize the school board’s spending decisions, including:
Its building a “$31 million administration building while students were being forced to learn in rundown trailers.”
Procurement practices such as “accepting lavish gifts including junkets paid for by potential vendors.”
The board contract for legal services that “has not been renewed without significant review for 63 years.”
McKoon said the district over the past five years has paid an average $669,449 annually in legal fees.
Such criticisms have made him an inviting target for the Muscogee County School District, he said:
“The reaction of the MCSD to all of this has been to hurl untrue and hurtful accusations at me and others for simply making warranted criticisms of their failed policies . So my message to those who have lost the policy argument and resorted to gutter tactics to sully my reputation: I will defend it to the last and I will not be silenced in advocating for ethical and competent government.”