By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
The conversation in room 727 of the Alabama State House on Thursday afternoon had turned into something halfway between comedy and unchecked disbelief.
Standing before a Senate committee chaired by Sens. Gerald Dial and Quinton Ross, Hugh Evans, the longtime General Counsel for Alabama’s Ethics Commission, was attempting to explain why he and the Commission decided to publicly announce an investigation based solely on an anonymous complaint.
It was a particularly pertinent question, given that the Ethics Commission’s own rules state that it can’t investigate anonymous complaints.
But Evans, being an attorney, had managed to do well enough with the question, explaining that the complaint wasn’t anonymous because it came from the Alabama State Board of Education. The board’s attorney had hand delivered it.
Of course, that alone was enough to raise suspicion about just what the hell was happening here. Why was the school board attorney rushing over an anonymous complaint about a candidate for the State Superintendent’s job?
That complaint was aimed at Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Craig Pouncey, a longtime fixture in education around the State who was having his shot at the State’s top education job blown up real good.
Someone, who is definitely not school board member Mary Scott Hunter, had sent all board members an anonymous letter containing allegations that Pouncey had misused State resources in 2010 by having some of his staff at the Alabama State Department of Education write his doctoral dissertation. This information was supported by portions of emails pulled from Pouncey’s old email account at ALSDE.
The anonymous accusations were dismissed fairly quickly by most board members, because they were anonymous, having appeared at their seats at a July board meeting.
But Hunter didn’t dismiss them. Instead, without consulting any of her fellow board members, Hunter passed the information onto ALSDE’s in-house attorney, Juliana Dean, and then called the Ethics Commission to tell them of the complaint.
Hunter said on Thursday that she can’t remember if she ever mentioned to the Commission that the complaint against Pouncey was made anonymously. And then Hunter, an attorney and public school board member who has been through plenty of ethics training, said she didn’t know that anonymous complaints couldn’t be investigated.
To that, Dial laughed.
Ross smiled that smile the hotel staff gives you when you tell them you didn’t know checkout was at 11.
Then came Evans, who proclaimed that the complaint his office received wasn’t anonymous because it came from the board.
And it came at a good time, too. Evans was able to review the complaint, determine it to warrant investigation and get a letter out to the school board confirming the investigation into Pouncey in about 24 hours – an achievement that surely has the Ethics Commission in the running for some sort of public service efficiency award.
That rushed review, Evans said, came because his boss, Thomas Albritton, asked him to speed it along.
Eh, who’s to say? But definitely not because the search for a new superintendent was nearing its end.
Evans also didn’t have an answer when Ross asked about the statute of limitations for an investigation. The Commission’s rules say four years. Pouncey’s alleged transgression – which he and those who worked for him have strongly denied – occurred six years earlier. Even in Alabama math, six is greater than four.
But no matter.
The letter from the Ethics Commission, which named Pouncey, was, of course, made public by someone, who, again, was definitely not Mary Scott Hunter.
Pouncey’s shot at the Superintendent’s job began to unravel. A clear favorite early in the search, he was passed over in favor of Michael Sentance.
It’s not often you get to hear the particulars of a political takedown laid out, with all of its nastiness and backstabbing and wink-and-nod answers to obvious questions.
When it possibly involves the State entity established to root out corruption and backroom manipulation, it should scare the hell out of us.