By Larry Lee
The committee set up by Senators Gerald Dial and Quinton Ross held their second session Nov. 10 to question State school board members and others in the on-going effort to determine how an anonymous “smear sheet” discrediting Jefferson County school superintendent Craig Pouncey became public knowledge.
Pouncey, a former chief of staff for retiring superintendent Tommy Bice, was one of six applicants vying for Bice’s old job. Mike Sentence of Massachusetts was hired on Aug. 11. However, both Dial and Ross would like to find out how a breach of confidential info occurred so they can take steps to prevent it from happening in the future.
Committee members present, in addition to Dial and Ross, were Senator Greg Albritton and Rep. Steve Hurst. They interviewed state board members Matt Brown, Betty Peters, Stephanie Bell, Cynthia McCarty and Mary Scott Hunter. Others questioned were Ann Stark, longtime secretary to the state board, Dave Pope, head of IT for the state department of education, Hugh Evans, III. general counsel with the Ethics Commission and Lalia Mathis, former administrative assistant to Juliana Dean, legal counsel for the state department of education.
The session had its most contentious moments when Matt Brown of Fairhope and Mary Scott Hunter of Huntsville were answering questions. Brown said that when he read the anonymous complaint, that included parts of emails among state department staffers from 2009, he thought there was definitely an ethics conflict. He also stated that he did not think “it was the Senate’s business” to be looking into this matter and that any investigation should be handled by the State Department of Education.
Hunter was the final board member questioned.. She stated that after receiving the smear sheet at the July 12 meeting, she spent the night in Montgomery to attend another meeting the following day. At some point she then read the letter for the first time and became concerned about the allegations. She contacted interim State Superintendent Phillip Cleveland before she left Montgomery and gave him the info to pass along to legal counsel Dean.
Hunter also acknowledged that he contacted Tom Albrittion, Executive Director of the Ethics Commission to tell him about it. Dial bore in on two points. One, did she tell Albritton that the complaint was anonymous (the Ethics Commission does not investigate such complaints) and secondly, as a board member did she not feel an obligation to the entire board rather than acting alone?
Hunter stated that she could not recall if she told Albritton whether or not the information was anonymous and generally evaded the question about an obligation to the board.
Dial pointed out that anonymous complaints are not acted on, so this distinction was important. Hunter, who is an attorney, said she did not know the rules. (Earlier board member Cynthia McCarty told the committee that the State Board had a retreat in February and one of the speakers was Albritton, who gave each member a booklet pertaining to what the Ethics Committee does, and does not, do. In fact, Dial held up a copy for Hunter to see.)
He was visibly taken aback at Hunter’s response.
Dial also reminded Hunter that they were both at a Business Council of Alabama meeting pior to the Aug. 11 vote for a new superintendent and she told him that Pouncey would not be considered for the job because of an “ethics complaint.”
Hunter praised Pouncey at several points during her remarks saying that she has “high regard” for him. But it should be noted that when the board voted on the six candidates on Aug. 11, Hunter voted for four different applicants–but never Pouncey.
Hugh Evans, III Ethics Commission General Counsel, spoke to the committee. He stated that Albritton told him they needed a copy of the complaint and that there seemed to be “an urgency” about the request. Evans called Dean who hand-delivered a copy the same day. Later that day (July 15) Evans sent Dean a letter acknowledging receipt of the information.
This letter from Evans to Dean has gotten considerable attention because the first paragraph states:
“Please be advised that we have received a complaint alleging certain possible violations of the Ethics Law on the part of Warren Craig Pouncey, a candidate for Superintendent of the State Department of Education and a former employee of the department.”
Dial pressed Evans as to why Pouncey’s name was included in the letter, especially given the fact that the anonymous complaint referred to would not be investigated. Evans told him this was standard procedure to which Dial responded that this should be changed immediately
Once Dean got the letter from Evans, she sent copies to all board members. It began to appear in state media shortly thereafter.
The final point made during the meeting was that since the anonymous complaint made against Pouncey dealt with something that happened in 2009-10, the statute of limitations used by the Ethics Commission has long expired. So whether the complaint was anonymous or not–it was a moot point.
It was also interesting that David Byrne, Governor Bentley’s Chief Legal Counsel and Alice Martin, Chief Deputy Attorney for Attorney General Luther Strange attended the meeting.
Dial indicated the committee will probably have one more meeting and hopes to question Tom Albritton.