By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
A candidate for the state superintendent’s position has filed a lawsuit alleging several members of the State Department of Education’s legal office, interim superintendent Philip Cleveland and state school board member Mary Scott Hunter illegally conspired to prevent him from landing the job.
In a filing with Montgomery County Circuit Court, former assistant state superintendent Craig Pouncey claims Hunter, along with Juliana Dean, James Ward and Susan Crowther – all members of the ALSDE legal department, concocted and pushed a bogus allegation that he cheated on his college dissertation. The defendants, Pouncey claims, went as far as to call Samford University to report the allegation and then pressured the Alabama Ethics Commission to provide confirmation that it was investigating the bogus claim.
The lawsuit describes the action against Pouncey as “willful, malicious and fraudulent” and says the actions by Hunter, Ward, Cleveland, Dean and Crowther were “so extreme in degree that it goes beyond the bounds of decency and was atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.”
Just days prior to his interview with the state board of education, the Ethics Commission’s letter confirming the investigation was distributed publicly through the media, the lawsuit claims. Hunter further spread the allegation to state lawmakers while attending a Business Council of Alabama gathering, the suit states.
Two sources who attended that BCA meeting in Point Clear told APR that Hunter told them, without provocation, about the Pouncey claims.
During recent hearings held by a legislative committee investigating the incident – and specifically looking into how an anonymous ethics complaint became public – Tom Albritton, the executive director of the Ethics Commission, said Hunter called him about the complaint and that his office was led to believe that it was important to quickly begin an investigation.
However, the Commission, according to its own rules, shouldn’t have investigated the Pouncey complaint at all, since it was received anonymously – Alabama statute prohibits the Ethics Commission from investigating anonymous complaints – and because it was more than six years old. The statute of limitations on a felony complaint to the Commission is four years, and a misdemeanor is just two.
Neither Albritton nor Ethics Commission general counsel Hugh Evans provided an explanation for why they ignored the law and began that investigation. They also couldn’t explain why they rushed to generate a confirmation letter – a step that typically takes the Commission several days or weeks.
During the hearing, the chairman of the committee, Sen. Gerald Dial, joked that the Ethics Commission “won the efficiency award” for producing the letter so quickly.
Testimony in those hearings, however, never revealed that an employee of the Department of Education called Samford University to make it aware of the complaint against Pouncey, as the lawsuit does. It also claims that Ward attempted to convince Samford officials to open an investigation there.
Late Thursday, Ward, Dean and Crowther issued a joint statement to the Montgomery Advertiser saying they were disappointed with Pouncey’s lawsuit. They also said the search for the new superintendent – a position that eventually went to Michael Sentance – was conducted with integrity.
Pouncey’s lawsuit points out that Sentance removed his name from consideration for the job, but was contacted by Dean – at the urging of Hunter – and encouraged to reapply. That activity occurred less than two weeks before state school board members received the anonymous complaint against Pouncey.