By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Top State Department of Education officials didn’t agree with a recent report finding a conspiracy to smear a Superintendent candidate, leading superintendent Michael Sentance to seek a review of that report, a source told APR.
That source said Sentance was not alone in wanting a review of a report produced by ALSDE attorney Michael Meyer. In fact, the person said, a majority of people who heard the report suggested that the evidence presented didn’t fit the conclusion that five people, including a former interim superintendent, a state school board member and three staff attorneys, conspired to ruin Craig Pouncey’s candidacy.
That led to Sentence Chief of Staff, Dee Fowler, searching for a person to review Meyer’s report. Fowler’s first choice, former Mobile district attorney and former Gov. Bob Riley’s gambling task force leader John Tyson, turned the job down, and eventually Fowler located former Alabama Supreme Court justice Bernard Harwood.
“We just needed someone to review it from an appellate standpoint and see if there were questions,” Fowler told APR on Monday. “Obviously, he had some.”
Harwood’s review cost ALSDE $6,900 and produced his verbal review that was given at last Wednesday’s State School Board meeting and a written report that the board will receive on Friday, Fowler said.
Other legal questions, however, remain unanswered.
Fowler said he couldn’t explain why ALSDE general counsel Juliana Dean was asking Dorman Walker, an attorney from the Balch and Bingham firm, questions about the Pouncey allegations just days after receiving them.
That question is even more concerning considering ALSDE didn’t pay Balch and Bingham, according to the state’s online checkbook, for services in July, and paid the firm only $300 between July and Nov. 1.
“I cannot answer that,” Fowler said.
APR submitted written questions to ALSDE on Friday afternoon about Balch and Bingham attorneys’ involvement in the Pouncey matter. Fowler was to provide the department’s official response.
Fowler also couldn’t answer why the department, which has five staff attorneys, so often turns to outside legal counsel – even on a matter as routine as submitting or not submitting a complaint to the Ethics Commission.
However, a source at ALSDE told APR that Dean often turned to outside counsel for help – a tendency that irritates several board members and the last two superintendents.
In fact, it angered them so much that Dean was on the verge of being replaced by Sentance, the source said, prior to the fallout over Pouncey. Now, ALSDE officials feel obligated to let the situation play out and then make a decision.