By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
On Friday last, a package was hand-delivered to the State’s Attorney General’s Office containing the results of two investigations into what is labeled a smear campaign against Dr. Craig Pouncey, by those who plotted to deny him the position of State Education Superintendent.
Delivered directly to the Special Prosecution Division, lead by hard-boiled chief Matt Hart, the dossier encompasses the finds by the Alabama Department of Education conducted by Michael Meyer and the bipartisan Senate committee lead by Senators Gerald Dial (R-Lineville) and Quinton Ross (D-Montgomery).
Over the weekend, Senator Dial confirmed that his office had given the documents to the Attorney General’s Office. “The committee was formed to determine what happened in the process of hiring a new State Superintendent of Education,” said Dial. “It is now up other state agencies to review the facts and determine how, in their capacity, can they deter future actions of this kind.” Dial says he believes there should be a further review of the documentation the bipartisan committee collected to, “determine if any laws were broken and how to best to proceed with that process.”
Previously, the Press, the State Board of Education, and the Senate Committee were told that the Attorney General’s Office had rejected an investigation based on Meyer’s report.
However, Alabama Political Reporter can now confirm that the so-called refusal by the AG’s office was yet another smoke screen used to confound the puzzling intrigue that led to a false ethics complaints alleging Pouncey was not the author of his doctoral thesis and had used State resources to produce his dissertation. All of the allegations against Pouncey in the anonymous ethics complaint were proven false, but not before they were used to destroy his chance to become State Education Superintendent.
The scheme, according to the report, first published by APR was hatched and executed by Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) board member, Mary Scott Hunter, then-Interim Superintendent Philip Cleveland, and ALSDE attorneys Juliana Teixeira Dean, James R Ward III, and Susan Tudor Crowther. The internal investigation also found others who may have participated in the plot.
“Most regrettably, these five participants have caused grave and serious harm,” the report states, “and cast a major shadow on the veracity and credibility of the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education (through no fault of the majority) that still lingers to the present day.”
The individuals named in the report have denied any wrongdoing, and attorneys, whose fees are being paid by the State, are defending their claims.
There is currently an investigation into allegations that lawyer at ALSDE and Gov. Kay Ivey’s Office are trying to move attorney’s fees related to the Pouncey smear through the Alabama Board of Adjustment rather than regular channels. The Board comprised of State Auditor Jim Zeigler, Treasurer Young Boozer, Secretary of State John Merrill, and Finances Director Clinton Carter approve such payments based on the assurances by a given attorneys word.
Over the last several years, the Board’s caseload has increased exponentially due to the failure of the State’s accounting system known as STAARS. After years defending STARRS and hundred of thousands in taxpayer’s money wasted on the failed system, the State is in the process of scrapping it.
Machinations related to the Pouncey smear campaign have caused grave concern as Law Enforcement agents see a pattern of trumped-up ethics complaints being used as weapons to threaten and cajole. Almost immediately after State Superintendent Michael Sentance tasked staff attorney Meyer with conducting an internal investigation into events surrounding an anonymous ethics complaint against Pouncey, he discovered that he and his wife were also targets of a proposed ethics complaint.
ALSDE Chief Counsel Dean (in January 2017) claimed that Meyer and his wife, Tracey, also an employee at the Department of Education, were in violation of provisions of the Ethics Code. But, what were the crimes Dean was accusing the Meyers of doing?
According to Dean’s memo in June 2013, Meyer’s wife Tracey used her ALSDE email to “solicit a position” for her husband. She also claimed Michael Meyer had used his work email account to set up interviews with CNN and Good Morning America about a Christmas video that showed their then-11-year-old son receiving tickets to the National Championship without filing for leave time. She further claimed Michael Meyer used State time and resources to complete course work related to earning the rank of Lt. Colonel in the military. She admitted that in this instance he had sought leave time, but she didn’t believe the leave covered the time he must have spent on the course work. Dean concludes her memo stating, “I believe these acts are in violation of Alabama Code 36-25-5.”
Even still, unanswered questions remain regarding the Pouncey affair:
Why did Ethics Director Tom Albritton expedite a letter acknowledging the anonymous complaint against Pouncey?
Why did Hunter, Dean, and others not inform the Board that they were sending the complaint?
Did any of the five cited as conspirators in Meyer’s report know the anonymous complaint against Pouncey was false before sending it to Ethics?
Did anyone receive a thing of value to distribute this false allegation?
Who composed the complaint with cut and paste emails?
How were the emails obtained, through a past lawsuit or perhaps a secretary?
Were any documents destroyed?
Why did Meyer not demand copies of the text message between the five and others?
Why did Dean and others receive advice from attorneys at Balch Bingham?
If Hart undertakes a full investigation, these question will be of foremost concern. But for now, it is not certain if the Special Prosecutions Division will have the resources for such an undertaking due to Attorney General Steve Marshall’s stated desire to keep Hart on a short leash. Marshall reportedly is denying Hart’s unit the human resources to aggressively pursue its daunting case load. Marshall, appointed by disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, continues to solicit campaign contributions from those who have an interest in several issues under investigation by Hart’s team. Marshall, once an obscure Democrat District Attorney, first appointed to office by former Gov. Don Siegelman, is telling donors he is “handling Hart,” according to those Marshall is wooing for cash.
Law Enforcement officials worry that a pattern is emerging where special interest groups are not only influencing the outcome of School Board appointments by using phony ethics complaints but that the Criminal Justice System is also being compromised for personal gain.