In a shocker tonight, DeKalb Superintendent Crawford Lewis temporarily stepped down from his post after a morning search of his house ordered by the DeKalb DA.
It appears the search was the catalyst for the sudden decision, but it is unclear why. Was Lewis upset by the search, which is related to an ongoing investigation of school construction projects, an investigation that Lewis himself instigated and that now seems to have widened to include him?
Did he feel the whole mess compromised his position to oversee the county schools in these next few months of controversial and painful budget decisions? (I just came back from Tucker where 260 parents from three small elementary schools turned out to find out if why their schools were on a possible closure list and what they could do to fight it.)
I can understand the pressures on Lewis right now, but is this the right decision given the delicate negotiations over the next months to decide which schools to close and which employees to let go?
According to the AJC:
The DeKalb school board voted Thursday to accept Lewis’ temporary hiatus from the district and appointed an interim superintendent to serve while the district attorney completes its investigation into possible wrongdoing involving multi-million dollar school construction projects.
“He has made the offer because as always he is putting the best interest of the district and students above his personal interest,” board chairman Tom Bowen said.
The board’s vote came after investigators with the DeKalb district attorney’s office spent five-and-a-half hours searching Lewis’ Stone Mountain home, seizing three computer hard drives and six boxes.
District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming would not say what investigators were looking for, but confirmed that prosecutors executed search warrants at Lewis’ home and three school buildings as part of the investigation into the district’s construction program.
“This is all part of an ongoing investigation which was started at the request of the school system’s administration. After reviewing the information we gathered today, we anticipate bringing this matter to an appropriate conclusion,” Fleming said in a statement.
The district attorney’s office has been investigating whether the school system’s then-chief operating officer, Patricia “Pat” Pope, broke the law by allegedly steering contracts to her architect husband and construction companies where she has connections.
According to search warrants obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, investigators were looking for Lewis’ personal finance records, along with documents concerning him, Pope, Pope’s husband and the couple’s associates. Investigators also searched for records of gifts Lewis, Pope and school employees received from contractors; car purchases; and information on seven school construction projects.
The investigators were looking for the documents and computer files in connection with 10 different potential criminal charges, ranging from theft of federal funds and mail fraud, to bid-rigging and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, according to the search warrants.
A lawyer for Pope has denied the allegations. She has since been reassigned to special projects.
Lewis and Bernard Taylor, an attorney who previously represented him, did not return phone calls on Thursday.
After four hours behind closed doors, the board voted to appoint Ramona Tyson, the district’s deputy chief superintendent of business operations, as interim superintendent. The board also voted to pay Lewis’ legal expense and allow him to maintain his salary during his leave.
Board vice chair Zepora Roberts abstained from the vote, saying she didn’t want Lewis — a DeKalb schools employee of 33 years — to go.
“Our superintendent has not done anything wrong,” she said. “I am in support of him and would like to see him come back to work tomorrow.”
Lewis himself is the one who sparked the criminal probe that has now turned on him. In November 2008, while being questioned by a district attorney’s investigator about his purchase of a county car and questionable gas purchases on his county credit card, Lewis revealed a slew of allegations about Pope. The superintendent reported discovering a trend that those close to Pope were profiting off school projects, and that Pope’s husband had worked on school construction projects against his direction.
Bowen said Lewis is cooperating with investigators.
“It’s really a situation where the board is anxious to get all the details and why,” Bowen said. “We’ve been cooperating with the Pope investigation. So it’s a bit alarming and surprising to have something of this nature going down.”