By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge has dismissed two Department of Education attorneys and the former interim state schools superintendent from a lawsuit filed last year by Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey alleging a conspiracy to deny him the superintendent’s job.
Judge Roman Shaul, in a two-page order, released the department’s chief legal counsel, Juliana Dean, fellow ALSDE attorney Susan Crowther and former interim superintendent Philip Cleveland, saying Pouncey’s lawsuit “fails to allege facts that demonstrate these individual defendants were the source of any information that was disseminated to the public and/or that these individuals made any comments about the plaintiff that was not protected.”
However, Shaul allowed the case to proceed against state school board member Mary Scott Hunter and ALSDE attorney James Ward. The judge noted specific incidents from Pouncey’s complaint that could describe “actionable conduct.”
Shaul provided Pouncey’s attorney, Kenny Mendelsohn, 14 days to amend the complaint or provide additional facts that might show how Dean, Crowther or Cleveland acted outside of the scope of their jobs as state employees.
Pouncey’s lawsuit was filed after an odd search for a state superintendent ended in the selection of Michael Sentance, who was so sure that he wasn’t getting the job that he pulled his name out of the selection process a few weeks prior to interviews.
Sentance was convinced to re-enter his name after a phone call from Dean, who said she was acting on instructions from Hunter.
A few weeks later, anonymous allegations that Pouncey misused state resources when completing his doctoral dissertation found their way to the seats of every state school board member at one of the board’s regular meetings. Hunter, who has maintained she knew nothing of the origin of the allegations, decided to treat the seven-year-old claims as potentially damning information.
Hunter called the Ethics Commission to inform them of the allegations and then instructed Dean to pass them along.
In the meantime, Dean, Crowther and Ward began investigating the claims, going so far as to have Ward call Samford University, where Pouncey received his doctorate degree, and claim that Pouncey had possibly cheated. He also asked Samford to start an investigation.
It was that phone call that has left Ward still in the case. Shaul specifically cited that allegation in his order.
The Ethics Commission, for reasons that have never been determined, ignored two of its bylaws — barring accepting information from an anonymous source and a statute of limitations that had expired three years earlier — and issued a letter within 24 hours — a remarkable turnaround for the Commission — stating that it was investigating the matter.
That letter found its way to the board, which was in the process of selecting the next superintendent, and was reported by the Alabama Political Reporter.
Shaul denied Hunter’s dismissal request due to an allegation that she spread the rumors of Pouncey’s “ethics problems” during a Business Council of Alabama retreat. Multiple state lawmakers have said on the record, and during a legislative committee hearing, that Hunter provided them with the information about Pouncey.
Shaul also noted that the act of releasing the confidential Ethics Commission letter stating it was investigating Pouncey could also rise to the level of an actionable offense.