By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
The dumbest conspiracy in the recent history of Alabama’s Department of Education took center stage on Wednesday during a heated, dumpster fire of a State Board of Education meeting.
With board members routinely raising their voices to speak over each other, backhanding insults and tossing about serious allegations of fraud and malfeasance, a department attorney outlined what he deemed a “tawdry scheme” to undermine the superintendent candidacy of a longtime State Educator.
I guess that’s where we should start our breakdown of this absolute mess – with that scheme.
There is no doubt at this point that people connected with the state board and with ALSDE conspired to hurt the candidacy of Dr. Craig Pouncey.
A mysterious envelope containing anonymous allegations of Pouncey misusing State resources to complete his dissertation showed up prior to a July 12 board meeting, at which point board member Mary Scott Hunter began a crusade for ethics that is unequaled in the history of American government.
So concerned with these anonymous allegations, which were copied and pasted together so haphazardly that they were described as “Unabomber-like” in Wednesday’s meeting, Hunter and ALSDE attorney Juliana Dean embarked on a complicated, multi-step process for reporting those allegations to the Alabama Ethics Commission.
Because it was “our duty,” Hunter said Wednesday.
Unfortunately for Pouncey, that’s where Hunter’s and Dean’s knowledge of the ethics laws stop.
Hunter said she wasn’t aware that the Commission doesn’t accept anonymous complaints or that the two-year statute of limitations on the allegations had expired four years earlier.
“I don’t know every law in the book,” said Hunter, who is a lawyer and an elected public official subject to those ethics laws.
Tough break for Pouncey, I guess.
Enter: Michael Meyer.
Meyer is the attorney at ALSDE who State Superintendent Michael Sentance tasked with getting to the bottom of this whole thing.
What he found, as first reported by APR’s Bill Britt prior to Wednesday’s meeting, was a “scheme to malign Dr. Pouncey and prevent his selection as State Superintendent.”
In on the scheme, according to Meyer’s report, were Hunter, Dean, two other ALSDE attorneys and former interim-superintendent Phillip Cleveland.
Meyer said emails and testimony (and common sense) showed the five of them concocted the scheme to forward the baseless, anonymous complaints to the Ethics Commission and then set about disseminating that information.
Here’s how bad it was: On July 22, some 10 days after the anonymous complaint was received and nearly a month before the vote for a new superintendent, ALSDE attorney James Ward sent a memo to Dean and others about that the allegations. In that memo, Ward notes that the Ethics Commission probably won’t investigate the matter because of the statute of limitations.
And yet, they carried on with it.
Ward later called Samford University, where Pouncey received his doctorate, and attempted to coerce an investigation there. Dean moved forward with conversations about the matter with Hunter. Hunter spread the rumors at a Business Council of Alabama retreat (allegations she denied), according to at least six people who talked to her.
And most all of that came AFTER numerous people, including Pouncey, contacted ALSDE officials and provided evidence that the allegations against Pouncey were untrue. Even ALSDE’s own IT guy was ignored.
But if you think we’ve hit bottom, well, we did. But these people started digging.
During the course of Meyer’s investigation, Dean attempted to have him fired. She even went so far as to report him for some sort of flimsy ethics violation over taking his son to the 2012 BCS title game.
Hunter tried to play the victim at Wednesday’s meeting, and continued to proclaim that she was sickened over how her good friend Pouncey had been mistreated. That produced the first full-room, collective eye roll in history.
And deeper they dug.
Meyer said Sentance attempted to squash the investigation, telling him that the report would ruin Hunter’s political career and force him to fire three people. And that was quickly followed by Sentance hiring a former Alabama Supreme Court justice, Bernard Harwood, to come in and poke holes in Meyer’s report.
Poking holes in such a report is easy enough to do, I guess. But it’s much, much harder to poke holes in common sense.
And that’s where Hunter, Dean and the whole tawdry bunch fall well short of being convincing – common sense.
There are too many coincidences, too many “oh, I didn’t know” moments, too many “we thought that’s what we were supposed to do” occurrences, too many oddities and too many wrongs.
And in the end, what Sentance feared is probably the appropriate conclusion to this embarrassing mess: he should fire three people and Hunter’s political career should be over.