Three longtime Alabama Department of Education attorneys sharply deny a report that they conspired to undermine Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Craig Pouncey’s bid for the job of state superintendent last year.
General Counsel Juliana Dean and Associate General Counsels James Ward and Susan Crowther wrote letters to the state Board of Education (see below) responding to the report by a co-worker, Associate General Counsel Michael Meyer.
“Let me be very clear, Mr. Meyer’s ‘defamatory’ report is a work of fiction and is due to be rejected by the board,” wrote Dean, who has worked for the department since 2005 and has been general counsel since 2015. “My colleagues and I absolutely did not conspire with anyone to harm Dr. Pouncey, and I sincerely believe Dr. Pouncey knows that, having worked with me for nearly ten years.”
Meyer’s report accused the lawyers of intentionally allowing anonymous allegations made against Pouncey to hurt his chances of becoming state superintendent.
“I did not write the anonymous letter about Dr. Craig Pouncey, defame him, participate in any conspiracy or scheme of any type against him, or take any other action designed to hurt him,” wrote Ward, who has worked for the department for almost 10 years.
The three lawyers asked the state board to reverse its decision, made last month, to accept Meyer’s report. They also said they would welcome an objective investigation.
“I ask that you rescind your acceptance of Meyer’s written report, which contains unsubstantiated and malicious conclusions, or, in the alternative, also publicly accept our responses,” wrote Crowther, who has worked for the department since 2002 and been a lawyer there since 2008.
Meyer did not respond to a request for comment submitted to the state department’s public information office.
“The Alabama State Department of Education does not comment on matters currently involved with litigation or that may involve future personnel actions,” department spokeswoman Erica Pippins Franklin said in an email.
Meyer’s report came at the request of State Superintendent Michael Sentance based on a resolution passed by the state board asking for an investigation into the origin and handling of the anonymous allegations against Pouncey.
Board members said Meyer’s report would be sent to the attorney general’s office, which had requested an internal review by the department before deciding whether to investigate.
Meyer concluded that the alleged conspirators intentionally let the allegations against Pouncey linger while the state Board of Education considered him and other finalists for state superintendent.
Besides the three lawyers, Meyer’s report accused board member Mary Scott Hunter of Huntsville and former interim Superintendent Philip Cleveland of conspiring against Pouncey.
Meyer did not accuse any of the five of being the author of the unsigned letter. That remains unknown. Meyer also did not interview any of the five for his report. Sentance said that would have been outside of the scope of the investigation. Sentance said he asked Meyer only to review documents. Meyer also took a deposition from David Pope, chief of information security for the department.
On June 21, the state board heard a presentation from Meyer about the report and voted 6-1 to accept it. Hunter voted against accepting it and called it “garbage.”
Pouncey has filed a lawsuit against the same five people named in Meyer’s report in February, making allegations similar to what’s in the Meyer report.
Dean and Crowther said it appeared the Meyer report was intended to influence the outcome of the lawsuit.
Both Pouncey and his attorney, Kenny Mendelsohn, said today they had not seen the letters from the three lawyers. Mendelsohn declined comment about them.
Pouncey said, “Obviously, the process is supposed to be guided in a very professional manner and certain protocols should always be exercised anytime there is a search for a new superintendent. It’s obvious with what occurred, those were not safeguarded.”
Last August, the state board voted to hire Sentance, a former education official from Massachusetts, over Pouncey and the other finalists.
The decision came after board members received the unsigned letter accusing Pouncey of ethics violations when he was a top official at the state department back in 2009. Pouncey and former employees familiar with what was alleged said the claims were baseless.
In his report, Meyer’s report said evidence collected showed Pouncey did not do what was alleged.
Pouncey and others said the publicity about the allegations crippled his chance of getting the job. He said he filed the lawsuit to clear his name.
A legislative panel, led by state Sens. Gerald Dial and Quinton Ross, has held hearings to question state board members and department employees about the way the anonymous complaint was handled. They have scheduled a hearing for Tuesday. It will be their first meeting since the Meyer report.
Ward’s letter to the board says his main job is to investigate teachers accused of misconduct, such as inappropriate relationships with students.
“It has been painful to have my character called publicly into question by people who have not even bothered to talk with me about what I did or to learn who I am — a man of sincerity and integrity,” Ward wrote.
Crowther wrote that she has worked for the department since 2002, first as a legal research assistant. Crowther said her main responsibility since she became a lawyer for the department in 2008 has been to prosecute educators for misconduct.
“As a prosecutor, I have carried out my responsibilities with integrity and fairness, working to ensure that respondents are afforded due process while also protecting students from educators who pose a threat to their safety,” Crowther wrote.
She also noted that the ongoing dispute is “yet another time-consuming distraction from providing services to Alabama public schools.”
Dennis Bailey, an attorney for Dean, Crowther and Ward, said he submitted to Dial’s legislative committee the letters from his three clients. Bailey said he also provided to the committee a written evaluation of Meyer’s report conducted by former state Supreme Court Associate Justice Bernard Harwood.
Harwood reviewed the report at the request of Sentance, who did not agree with Meyer’s conclusions. Harwood wrote that he reviewed Meyer’s report from the perspective of an appeals court judge. Harwood wrote that the information in the report and the attached documents did not appear to support the conspiracy conclusion.
Harwood made similar comments in an oral presentation to the board before it voted to accept the Meyer report on June 21. The board decided not to make his comments part of the record.
State board Vice President Stephanie Bell, asked today whether the board would consider publicly accepting the responses from the three lawyers, said the letters do not constitute a formal request for action by the board. Bell said a formal request would have to be made before the board at a meeting.
Bailey, the attorney for Dean, Crowther and Ward, said, “I thought a letter to every board member making that request was a formal request.”
Bell said if there were a formal request to the board, board members would not consider taking any action without consulting with their attorney because of related litigation.
Bell said, on the other hand, it was appropriate for the board to accept Meyer’s report because it came as a result of a board resolution.
Meyer, in his presentation to the board last month, said Dean had filed a complaint against him in retaliation for doing the investigation.
Dean disputed that in her letter, saying that she recommended in January that Meyer be disciplined or transferred for insubordination. Dean said she did not know about the investigation at that time.
Corrected at 11:12 p.m. to change references to Ward in last two paragraphs to Dean.
Department of Education Lawyers’ Letters to State Board by Mike Cason on Scribd