Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen called for a federal investigation Tuesday into whether school system officials punished employees trying to do the right thing or violated bidding procedures.
Allen made the request during a news conference at the Bibb County Courthouse in the wake of lawsuits and reporting by The Telegraph that detailed a lack of school board oversight in the Macon Promise Neighborhood program.
The allegations that surround the school board must be addressed by an outside authority with subpoena power, Allen said. These allegations must be investigated immediately by a federal authority, as the facts show a possible misuse of federal funds, not to mention state and local money as well.
A Telegraph investigation found that Bibb County school Superintendent Romain Dallemand nearly doubled the school systems commitment to the neighborhood improvement program, to $19.3 million over a decade, from what the school board had authorized him to do. Most of the cash in the deal goes to pay $5.75 million in rent, $3.25 million in utilities and other costs, and $1 million in renovations.
That money is slated for the former Ballard-Hudson Middle School building, which the school system declared as surplus and auctioned off for $220,000 in 2009.
A lawsuit by former Chief Financial Officer Ron Collier seeks, among other things, to cancel the school systems lease for the building, calling it illegal.
Allen refused to say exactly what hed like investigated, and he declined to say whether it was tied to Colliers lawsuit or other claims. Allen said the investigation would involve federal funds, and he suggested that a federal grand jury look into whether county school system employees were punished. Collier has been removed from the CFO position, and he says its because he refused to write a $1 million check without more detail.
The prosecutor should carefully examine any employment practices of the (Board of Education) wherein undue hardship or punishment was placed on BOE employees in retaliation for exercising their normal duties as those duties pertain to overseeing the spending guidelines of federal money given to the school board, Allen said.
Allen did ask for three other things to be investigated: whether current or former school system personnel got compensation they should not have been given; whether businesses or nonprofits did business that could directly or indirectly unlawfully benefit certain members of the school board; and whether any bidding procedures were violated.
Allen said he was leaving the news conference to hand deliver a letter for U.S. Attorney Michael Moore.
Moore told The Telegraph that any investigation, or whether one is launched, would remain confidential.
Our policy is we dont comment on investigations, even acknowledging that there is one going on, Moore said. Ill tell you that Im happy to receive the commissioners information, just as I would accept any type of information from citizens in the district, and Ill be taking a look at it.
Allen is asking for a special grand jury investigation through the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. He said it was his duty as an elected official to demand answers to his constituents questions.
He said he was asking questions about whether a crime had been committed, which an investigation could answer.
I think the people of Bibb County deserve the right to know if, or not, a crime has been committed, Allen said.
Bibb County District Attorney David Cooke, who prosecutes felony violations of state law in Bibb County, said Allen told him of his plans to go to federal prosecutors. Cooke said it wasnt appropriate for him to discuss the request.
Several officials associated with the Macon Promise Neighborhood program declined to comment or didnt return calls seeking comment. School system officials, who have declined to comment previously because of Colliers lawsuit, did not respond to a request by Tuesday evening.
Most school board members either didnt know about Allens call for a federal probe, declined to comment or could not be reached. Board member Tom Hudson said he didnt have any comment about Allens statement.
My primary concern is making sure we have a safe and conducive environment so our students can learn in the Bibb County school district, Hudson said.
While hes been trying to learn as much as he can about the school board and its actions, new board member Jason Downey, an attorney, said he doesnt have close-up knowledge of what specifically Allen is calling on federal investigators to look at.
Whether (its) warranted, I cant say, he said, noting that Allen wants an investigation of the current administration and past board members. That does not include him and board members Lester Miller and Thelma Dillard, who took office this month.
However, if the new board members become involved in any investigation, Downey said they will offer nothing but full cooperation from everyone involved.