Potential conflict of interest in study that influenced MCSD’s l - WVTM-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Birmingham, AL

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Potential conflict of interest in study that influenced MCSD’s legal counsel recommendation

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News 3 has learned more about the report Muscogee County School Superintendent David Lewis used to help make his recommendation to retain the district's six-decade, no-bid deal with their current legal counsel -- Hatcher, Stubbs.

The report was released back in January before the superintendent gave his recommendation on whether the district should keep their no-bid deal with their current law-firm, or open it up for bidding.

The Muscogee County School District hired the firm Hanover Research to a 3 year contract to provide the district with data and analysis. Their first project was to give Superintendent David Lewis information to help with his recommendation on legal counsel. When the report was made public, some were concerned with the methodology. More questions were raised when the experts were identified.

Hanover interviewed the following experts:
  • Jayne Harrell Williams, an Alabama attorney
  • Phillip L. Hartley, a Georgia attorney
  • Trudy Sowar, the Director of Risk Management for the Georgia School Board Association

Board member Cathy Williams says she's most concerned with Phillip Hartley being used as a source. Hartley spoke at a Muscogee County school board meeting in 2011 and recommended the district to not bid out legal services. This came two years after Hartley’s firm provided the district legal services worth nearly $75,000 dollars.

“I was a little surprised that they chose to use Phil Hartley,” says Williams. “There's no question where he stands. I think you could question whether or not he's biased.”

David Lewis, who became superintendent in July of 2013, says he was aware Hartley came down and gave the presentation, but says he didn't know anything else about Hartley other than that he's had relationships with multiple school boards in Georgia. He says he doesn't view it as a conflict of interest.

"I had no idea who Hanover was contacting at the time, so no that doesn't concern me," says Lewis. "He [Hartley] is a recognized expert in the field, as in the fact that Hanover reached out to him, as well as the 2 other experts in their respective areas."

Williams says she's also concerned about the type of experts interviewed. She says they're all from the same field of work. They’ve all worked extensively in law as it relates to school boards. She wants to see a more diverse group in order to have a more balanced approach, such as legal educators.

“It's not really a comprehensive research document, it was just sort of a cursory 'we asked a couple people and looked on the internet and this is what we think,'” says Williams.

However, Lewis stands by the report and says he has confidence in whatever ways the firm handles it's research. He was still satisfied with the report after seeing the names and bios of experts interviewed.

"It was strictly an opportunity for them to go out and solicit through the only parameters that I set was to make sure we had both local and national perspectives," says Lewis.

Williams says she will withhold any judgment on Hanover until they provide a second report on another topic. She also says it doesn't affect her view of Superintendent Lewis' performance. She's still satisfied with the work he's done so far.

Additional documents:

David Hurst

David Hurst, a graduate of the Univ. of Georgia, focuses on how your tax dollars are being spent.

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