Two attorneys who investigated the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal will look into allegations of corruption among Coweta County School officials.
The Coweta County School System has tapped Keri Ware and former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson, both of whom were appointed to then-Gov. Sonny Perdue’s team of special investigators in the late 2000s when a too-sharp rise in APS standardized test scores was called into question.
A state investigation determined student test scores were changed at 44 of 56 Atlanta public schools, and 11 teachers ultimately were convicted on racketeering charges related to tampering with the tests.
Wilson and Ware will lead an independent probe into allegations made by local resident Henry “Hank” Ashmore that school board members, the school system and staff engaged in fraud, racketeering, conspiracy and bid rigging.
In a letter dated Aug. 7, Columbus attorney Josh McKoon – who is representing Ashmore – outlined the allegations that Coweta school officials violated Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act during the process of awarding a more than $5 million contract for improvements – including installation of artificial turf – at three high school stadiums.
Superintendent Steve Barker and school board members Frank Farmer, Winston Dowdell, Sue Brown, Larry Robertson, Amy Dees, Linda Menk and Beth Barnett received the letter, according to board attorney Nathan Lee.
Lee called Ashmore’s claims baseless, and in an Aug. 22 letter to McKoon, he asked Ashmore’s attorney to provide “any evidence which would substantiate the serious allegations set forth in your letter.”
“Your letter contains serious allegations of violations of Georgia law, specifically bid rigging,” Lee wrote. “I have not been able to find any evidence of any such illegal activity on behalf of anyone involved with the School System, including its board members and staff.”
McKoon, a former state senator who unsuccessfully campaigned for Georgia secretary of state earlier this year, has not responded to Lee’s request.
Ashmore accused school officials of manipulating the bid system to ensure a specific company – Deluxe Athletics – was selected to install artificial turf and renovate tracks at East Coweta, Newnan and Northgate high schools. In the Aug. 7 letter, McKoon states Ashmore’s intention to move ahead with filing a lawsuit if school officials don’t respond in 30 days.
In addition to “injunctive relief to ensure the relevant parties will cease and desist from conspiring to flout Georgia’s competitive bidding statute,” Ashmore seeks to recoup attorney fees and collect triple actual damages as well as punitive damages, according to the letter.
Barker discussed the letter at the Aug. 14 meeting of the Coweta County Board of Education, saying he believed the accusations require the board to follow a specific policy that outlines protocol for reporting and investigating fraud allegations. Lee advised the board to consider one of three options: No action, conduct an investigation or have someone conduct an investigation.
The board voted to pursue a third-party review, which will be conducted by Wilson and Ware. It is not known how long their investigation will take.
“We can’t give them a deadline,” Lee said. “We want them to have as much time as they feel they need. But we have asked them to do it as fast as possible with the understanding that they’re in control of the interview process.”