By Larry Lee
The committee created by Senators Gerald Dial and Quinton Ross to find out how anonymous info given to the state school board made its way into public heard from their first “witnesses” earlier today.
Senator Dial stressed again that the legislature has gone to great lengths to make sure anonymous complaints made to the Ethics Commission do not reach the public and the intent of this committee is to determine how such a “leak” occurred so they can take steps to correct it.
At the July 12, 2016, State School Board meeting in Montgomery, an anonymous letter claiming that Craig Pouncey did not write his own doctoral dissertation in 2009 was given to board members. This information was unsigned and was “supported” by emails among state education staffers from 2009. The Ethics Commission does not investigate unsigned complaints.
Pouncey was a candidate at the time for the position of State Superintendent of Education and this was obviously an attempt by someone to discredit his application.
Four of the six committee members were present. They were Senators Dial, Ross and Greg Albritton. Rep. Issac Whorton also attended. Both Albritton and Whorton are attorneys.
They heard from the following, in this order: board member Jeff Newman of Lamar County, board member Yvette Richardson of Jefferson County, board member Ella Bell of Montgomery, former interim state superintendent Phillip Cleveland and state education department general counsel Juliana Dean. All board members were asked to attend, however, Mary Scott Hunter, Cynthia McCarty, Stephanie Bell, Betty Peters and Matt Brown did not. (When the vote for the new superintendent was held on Aug. 11, Hunter, Stephanie Bell, Peters and Brown voted for Mike Sentence while Newman, Richardson and Ella Bell voted for Pouncey).
Newman testified that the envelope containing the Pouncey allegations was at his seat when he got to the July 12 meeting. He also said that as a former local school superintendent, he was accustomed to receiving anonymous complaints and they all went into “file 13.”
Richardson, who is vice-president of the state board and presides when the governor is not present, is also a former local superintendent. She stated that when she saw the letter was anonymous she did not open it. She also said that Cleveland and Ross called her the following week to ask her what should be done about the letter. She told them there should be no action on it.
Ella Bell said she did not know about the “smear sheet” until she read about it in the paper, that she did not get one at the board meeting.
She also stated that she received a call on a Sunday night not long after the July 12 meeting that another board member was at a Business Council of Alabama meeting telling people that Craig Pouncey would not be considered for state superintendent because of his ethics complaint.
Cleveland testified that he did not get the letter at the board meeting. However, after the meeting he received a phone call from member Mary Scott Hunter about the letter and met her in the building parking garage to get her copy, which he gave to Dean.
Senator Dial questioned Cleveland about how someone could have accessed department emails from 2009. Cleveland stated that department IT personnel said there was not an “external breach” of the system.
Dean told the committee that she got a phone call on Friday, July 15 from Hugh Evans, Jr. legal counsel at the Ethics Commission asking for a copy of the letter. She said she made a copy and hand-delivered to Evans. Later that day she received a letter from Evans stating that he had the information. This letter was sent to all board members.
It was at this point that the Ethics Commission letter began to surface in public. In fact, I asked a journalist friend who ran a story with a link to the letter how he obtained it. He said it came from a member of the state board.
Hugh Evans was in attendance at the meeting, as was his boss Tom Albritton. He apparently was the next “witness” to be called, however, due to the length of the meeting it was recessed and will re-convene at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 10, immediately following the next regularly scheduled state board meeting.
Now the question on everyone’s mind is, why did Hugh Evans call Juliana Dean and who told the Ethics Commission the letter even existed. Plus, if they do not investigate unsigned complaints, why would they want a copy?
This committee may never get all the answers they are looking for, but it is quite obvious someone was trying to torpedo Pouncey’s chances of being selected as state superintendent. Hopefully, that person or persons will be found out and dealt with accordingly.
Yesterday the governor dumbfounded us by saying that “public education sucks.” What we are now seeing is the underbelly of the politics of public education. And in this context, the governor is right, it does suck. And the fact that someone on the state board of education, the one group in Alabama charged with helping our 740,000 public school students, would stoop this low is unconscionable.