By Larry Lee
More than 40 years ago, the late Tennessee Republican Senator Howard Baker asked during the Watergate hearings, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
I was reminded of that yesterday, January 18, 2017, as I listened for nearly two hours while Senators Gerald Dial, Quinton Ross, Greg Allbritton, and Rep. Steve Hurst, convened for their third round of questioning of those who could shed light on how an anonymous “smear sheet” became public knowledge, and an integral part of the effort of the State Board of Education to select a new State school chief last summer.
Here is what we know with certainty: A “smear sheet” intended to discredit applicant Craig Pouncey was distributed to State Board members at their July 12 meeting. Masquerading as a complaint to the Ethics Commission, the info was unsigned. While six board members discounted it, members Mary Scott Hunter and Matt Brown told the legislative committee they were very troubled by the allegations.
Hunter passed the info on to Phillip Cleveland, who was interim superintendent at the time, and asked him to get it to board legal counsel Juliana Dean. Hunter then called Tom Allbritton, who runs the Ethics Committee, and told him about the document. She did not tell him that the info was anonymous (This is important because the Ethics Commission will not investigate info they can not verify or prove credible).
Allbritton called his legal counsel, Hugh Evans, Jr., who called Dean and told her Ethics needed to see the “complaint.” Dean hand-delivered it to Evans on July 15, and by the end of the day, Evans sent her a letter with the following sentence: “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.”
This single sentence was enough to spring the trap someone was setting for Pouncey.
And it is at the heart of the Legislative investigation. Dean distributed this letter to every State Board member and someone leaked it to the press. All eight board members have testified before the committee, and as you would expect, all said they did not pass the letter along.
Senator Dial has been adamant in quizzing the Ethics Commission as to why Pouncey was named in the letter, rather than say this case being assigned a case number.
The committee spent 45 minutes today asking questions of Tom Allbritton. He concluded that they need to take more precautions in protecting people from what could be baseless allegations and assured Dial that they would make changes.
“Witnesses” today were Allbritton, Dave Pope, IT director for the State Department of Education, James Ward, staff attorney, and Juliana Dean, legal counsel. This was the second appearance for both Pope and Dean.
But back to Howard Baker.
A good bit of time was devoted in the hearing to trying to establish time lines as to who knew what and when they knew it. This is important since lawmakers would like to know if all parties involved were being “reactive” or if someone was being “proactive.” In other words, who was orchestrating the campaign against Pouncey and was the Ethics Commission and the State Board complicit in their actions?
More info that surfaced today is that Montgomery Advertiser reporter Bryan Lyman made a request to the state department for documentation under the Freedom of Information Act last September, and is yet to receive a response. According to Pope, another department turned this request over to him the end of last October and he passed the info on to State Superintendent Mike Sentance and Dean. So, apparently they have been sitting on it for two months.
Pope also stated that he received a request from Senator Dial for all department emails pertaining to Craig Pouncey from June 1, 2016 to August 31, 2016. He conducted this search and found 256 such emails. These have been given to Chief of Staff, Dee Fowler.
Dial had expected today’s hearing would be their last. However, he stated at the end of the two-hour session that they may meet again, since there are still many unanswered questions.
It is obvious that last summer’s “search” process was deeply flawed and the playing field was anything but level. Someone was working hard to put an illegitimate process in place, one more about a political agenda than about what is best for the 740,000 students in our public schools.
I was in three schools yesterday. One middle, two elementary. How in the world someone elected to serve on the State School Board can put their own political ambitions above the needs of the children I saw is incomprehensible.
There are two legal actions just around the corner pertaining to what happened last year. It is a very sad state of affairs when those whose only concern is meeting the challenges of our children, must seek court action to get elected officials to conduct themselves as professionals.