making local government more ethical

Atlanta Schools Ethics Controversy Decimates Ethics Commission

An ethics controversy involving the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has led to the resignation of four of the seven members of the APS ethics commission, a failure to replace them, and a threat to the schools' accreditation status.

The story starts in 2010, when ethics complaints were filed against school board members for misuse of credit cards. According to a post in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Get Schooled blog last August, a state school board member said that serious infighting on the APS school board was an attempt to protect one school board member from the ethics charges (the following month, the APS school board elected a new chair and vice-chair). The state school board member also criticized the ethics commission chair, whom he felt was not capable of handling the ethics proceeding.

According to the Report of the Special Review Team for Atlanta Public Schools (the review was done last December), the APS school board member was fined $2,500, had his charge card revoked, and faced having a school board reprimand read into the minutes. But, due to a 4–4 vote, the reprimand was not read into the record.

Then sometime this year, a complaint was filed against four APS school board members, charging that they had taken free services from a public relations firm before granting it a contract. According to John Schaffner's Buckhead View blog, in April of this year, three of the seven EC members resigned before the EC could meet to begin an investigation. Five members are needed to investigate, so the investigation was halted. A fourth member resigned this week, according to an article from Atlanta Progressive News.

Selecting New EC Members
There has been a controversy over replacement of the EC members, since at least two of those who, according to the ordinance, are to select the replacements are respondents in proceedings before the EC. No action has been taken to replace the EC members and, therefore, no action has been taken on the complaints.

One school board member told Atlanta Progressive News that the board was reconsidering its nomination process, but a policy change is not necessary. That is, the school board members who, under law, must individually appoint replacements (and must do so within 90 days) do not need to actually select those replacements themselves or wait for the selection process to be changed. Each school board member obliged to appoint a new EC member could ask one or more community organizations, with whom they have no ties (e.g., a bar association), to make the selection. Any delay causes the public to believe that the school board does not want the investigation to proceed.

One EC Member's Resignation Letter
One of the most fascinating things about this mess is what the fourth EC member to resign wrote in his resignation letter:
    Those sworn to apply written law may encounter a case in which being faithful to their duty will require them to commit a grave individual injustice. But to circumvent explicit law under any pretext is a greater attack on the rule of law than such an anomaly. There is, however, another appropriate response in a case where either decision has grave consequences for society as a whole. It may be legally proper, ethically necessary, and socially constructive for an adjudicator to resign rather than render a judgment, declaring the principle at stake.

    ... At the time the Board member recommended approval of a proposal for public relations efforts in support of official Board policies, [he] was receiving pro bono services from the same company for the same purpose. Thus in the process of fulfilling his responsibilities, he made a technical mistake, i.e., he failed to recuse himself from making a recommendation regarding a proposal before the Board. The intent as well as the result was in pursuit of his responsibility for the benefit of the Atlanta Public Schools and without any personal benefit. Indeed, as soon as an issue was raised, he sought a judgment on impropriety from the Ethics Commission. It is my conviction that there was no possible intentional conflict of interest.

    Nevertheless, I refuse to violate the letter of the law by voting to exonerate the accused.  If holding the accused responsible entailed only a serious injustice to one whose actions were honorable, I would consider it a necessary consequence in defense of Law. But I will not commit this injustice to an individual when either decision would also have profoundly deleterious consequences for many critically important issues which the Board of Education now faces.
What seems like a very honorable position in the face of a serious conflict between doing justice and following the law seems questionable for three reasons. One, the investigation of this issue is not proceeding, so there is no reason to believe that, any time in the near future, the EC will be making a decision involving any school board member. Two, there is no reason to believe that what he wrote about the respondent will not be considered mitigating circumstances that will allow the EC to both do justice and follow the law.

And three, it is not clear that what the EC member wrote is actually the case. According to an article on the Fox 5 Atlanta website yesterday, the public relations company that is at the center of the ethics complaint gave Fox 5 a written statement saying that it "provided pro-bono services to individual elected officials and never to the Board of Education." In other words, the services were not, according to the company, for the benefit of the schools, but for the benefit of the officials.

What is clear is that now the EC does not have a quorum, and therefore cannot have a meeting, not to mention investigate complaints. In effect, there is no APS ethics commission anymore.

Since the accreditation agency required the school system to follow its own rules of conduct, it is unlikely that the effective dissolution of the EC and the school board's failure to replace the members in the shadow of an investigation will be taken lightly. This very unusual and irresponsible handling of an ethics controversy will instead likely jeopardize the school system's accreditation status.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics