GBI sends fire department records probe to DA; alleged school board threats go to attorney general

Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com 
 The new Muscogee County School District administration building is near completion. 09/30/09
Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com The new Muscogee County School District administration building is near completion. 09/30/09 mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has concluded probes related to the Muscogee County Board of Education and the Columbus Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services.

Special Agent in Charge Wayne Smith said the bureau has finished its review of some school board representatives’ allegations that Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon threatened to withhold state funding if the board didn’t put its contract for legal services up for bid, instead of exclusively awarding it to Columbus law firm Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild, LLP.

Smith said he will deliver that case file to the Georgia Attorney General’s Office this morning. The attorney general has the authority to investigate state officials, should he determine a criminal investigation is warranted, Smith said.

He said the file from the agency’s review of allegations involving the Columbus fire department was delivered Aug. 21 to District Attorney Julia Slater, who Wednesday said her staff is examining it now.

Fire investigation

That investigation involved accusations that documents were altered or removed from fire department records. Slater requested a two-pronged review — one into allegations that administrators altered files from a 2010 home daycare fire to conceal evidence that the first fire engine responding was dangerously understaffed; another into reports records were altered to show fire safety inspections were conducted at schools and businesses when in fact they were not.

One child died and three others were seriously injured in the Feb. 26, 2010, daycare fire at 5629 Mill Branch Road. The first engine came from Fire Station No. 7 at 5343 Buena Vista Road, just 1.3 miles away. The engine had only three firefighters instead of the usual five. The lieutenant who would have been in command was out with an injury, and minutes before the alarm a battalion chief took another firefighter in for a random drug test.

A fire investigator later claimed both missing crew members were being drug-tested, and records were removed or altered to conceal that. On June 14, Smith told the Ledger-Enquirer his agency found that claim to be inaccurate: Agents found no evidence the file on that fire had been changed.

Smith said the second prong of the fire department investigation had evidence best left for the district attorney to examine, though Slater said she will look at both issues. She could not say when her review would be completed.

The GBI’s fire department probe began with agents serving a search warrant Feb. 12 at the department’s administrative offices in the Columbus Public Safety Center, 510 10th St.

School board investigation

The GBI’s review of school board allegations started after Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren, acting at the behest of school board chairman Rob Varner and then-interim superintendent John Phillips, sent a March 4 letter requesting it.Varner and Phillips have said they’re not at liberty to comment on the probe.

The GBI said it was asked “to conduct an investigation based on information 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.”

That request to the GBI followed sometimes vociferous criticism from McKoon and Columbus attorney Frank Myers about board members’ refusing to consider seeking legal services from anyone other than Hatcher-Stubbs, the only law firm it has used since the county and city school districts consolidated in 1950. The school superintendent recommends the law firm to the board, which has not sought competing proposals.

Myers claims the law firm overcharges the district. McKoon says he by principle is opposed to exclusive government contracts, regardless of their nature.

The GBI has interviewed both Myers and McKoon. McKoon said he was questioned in mid-July; Myers said Smith talked to him on Aug. 19. Each said the interview was voluntary and cordial.

McKoon said the GBI’s focus appeared to be the same as three ethics complaints school board members filed against him, all of which were dismissed.

Those complaints came from John Wells, Athavia Senior and Beth Harris. Each claimed that in meetings with McKoon and Myers, the two said McKoon would withhold state funds if the board didn’t manage its money wisely, and a no-bid contract with Hatcher-Stubbs would not be wise.

McKoon and Myers denied that, and the Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the complaints on March 28.

While again denying those accusations Wednesday, McKoon made this analogy: Congress now is threatening to shut down the federal government if the president won’t do what it wants.

“If that is not a criminal act, then this, even if it were true, and it is not, could not possibly be a criminal or ethical thing,” he said. “I think it would be tacky and unpleasant and not something I would ever do, but the idea that it rises to the level of a criminal or ethical violation is laughable.”

Myers in an email said his interview with Smith was “extremely pleasant.”

He wrote: “Before this meeting, I specifically asked Agent Smith if I needed to bring any documents, e-mail, phone records, or the like to the meeting. He very politely declined my offer.”

Myers took the opportunity to give Smith an earful:

“Since this fiasco began, many citizens have shared information with me concerning mismanagement and other potential wrongdoing within our local public school system. Agent Smith allowed me to share much of that information with him. ”

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UPDATE: School board member Athavia Senior says Sen. McKoon has "a lot of nerve"