OEDEL: Deeper than Dallemand

March 16, 2014 

The accountants’ scalding audit of the Bibb County Board of Education’s spending habits under former Superintendent Romain Dallemand revealed something more than tech and social service spending run amok.

Three local leaders’ immediate reactions to the latest revelations were to caution against exploring too carefully Dallemand and the conditions that permitted him to operate so outrageously right before our eyes. In making their “move along, nothing here” remarks, those leaders reflected a cultural bias against transparency in local government that’s reminiscent of a nastily aristocratic Old South.

Such sensibilities are counterproductive to effective governance. Dallemand’s case proves the point. Dallemand’s arrogance was accommodated in part because of our lingering cultural aversion to holding leaders accountable for outrages of various stripes, going all the way back to segregation and slavery. In Dallemand, we got what we deserved.

After the audit was made public (thanks not to openness, but because The Telegraph formally demanded access under law), interim Bibb County school Superintendent Steve Smith was first to warn against any “witch hunt.” Smith later clarified that he meant we shouldn’t replicate a prior investigation that cost a half-million dollars to explore maybe $30,000 in allegedly inappropriate expenditures. But because the recent audit uncovered more than a thousand times as many dubious expenses during one year of Dallemand’s reign -- more than $40 million -- one has to question Smith’s strained analogy in his “witch hunt” walk-back. Almost half of property taxes go to the Bibb County Board of Education. Taxpayers care.

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert weighed in with a March 2 email to a constituent who’d inquired about how to address the audit’s revelations. Reichert copied other elected officials and leaders on his imperious overview, which read as follows: “It would be my hope that we move forward from here and not revisit events that will divide us. While there are two sides to this story, neither will move us forward and both serve to hold us back. The former superintendent is gone and I do not believe it to be worthwhile to review unnecessarily, his record. Instead, let’s move forward, together. RABR”

Among those whom Reichert copied was Charles E. Richardson, The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. Richardson had already written an unsigned editorial published March 2 expressing doubt about further investigation, then issued an attributed video op-ed March 5 titled “Dallemand Dilemma: how much are you willing to pay?” Richardson made three points in defense of the “move along” theme.

First, Richardson said any investigation has to point right back at the board of education. Second, Richardson said that violation of policy is not necessarily a criminal act. Third, and “more importantly,” according to Richardson, we don’t want to have to pay for the “privilege” of exacting our “pound of flesh.” Richardson cited the BOE’s supposed indemnification of Dallemand for criminal defense. Richardson didn’t, though, cite impartial legal authority about the enforceability of Dallemand’s last employment deal, including the criminal defense provision that it bizarrely added. Richardson just assumed that “taxpayers and the board have to pay (Dallemand’s) legal fees.”

Richardson’s first point undermines his conclusion. As Richardson suggests, the present board was deeply enmeshed with Dallemand, for instance purporting to commit taxpayers to defend any Dallemand crimes. Lester Miller was the only board member with the common sense and spine to vote against Dallemand’s facially incredible attempted whitewash. Our leadership issues haven’t just high-tailed it to Haiti.

Second, spending millions without board approval may well be a federal crime even if not a state one -- misapplication of public funds, 18 U.S.C. 666. U.S. Attorney Michael Moore also has the special tool of a federal grand jury to investigate an appearance of corruption without first showing probable cause. President Barack Obama’s administration should back Moore in charging a grand jury to investigate.

Richardson’s ultimate point about taxpayers being obliged to defend Dallemand for any crimes is questionable. Dallemand’s indemnification “rights,” and perhaps the entire severance deal, are invalid under several scenarios. The BOE desperately needs independent legal counsel.

Foreign in some ways, Dallemand remains remarkably culturally familiar. Our local governance cancer runs deeper than Dallemand.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer University law school.

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