TEA’s internal strife grows; Acting chief: Report that he steered money to friends is a case of mistaken ID

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Texas Education Agency has taken on a remarkable resemblance to a soap opera over the last week – with claims of mistaken identity, whispers about vendettas and a traditionally tight clan pulled apart.

Last week, internal investigators said they had found evidence that one of the agency’s top bosses, Robert Scott, was improperly funneling state contract money to his friends. On Friday, Mr. Scott fired back, issuing his own report that claimed investigators had confused him with a colleague of the same name.

TEA investigators vigorously denied his claims, which led to still another volley of charges and countercharges.

“I think they’re trying to dig themselves out of a hole,” Mr. Scott said of his agency’s investigators.

The scandal – or nonscandal, depending on one’s perspective – has left the agency divided into accuser and accused. That’s an unusual – and uncomfortable – position for an agency used to speaking with one voice.

And it has also left some of the agency’s top officials in an unusual position. With the resignation of Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley a week ago, Mr. Scott is now TEA’s acting commissioner. That means that, as of Monday, the agency’s chief investigator, Michael Donley, now reports directly to the primary target of his investigation, Mr. Scott.

Contracting process

The inspector general’s report, released June 27, examined the ways in which TEA gave out contracts for grant programs and other services. While it did not allege any illegal acts, it included evidence that some agency officials – most prominently Mr. Scott – may have manipulated the process to favor people close to them.

Mr. Scott vigorously denied the findings when the report was issued and said it included numerous errors. On Friday, he issued a detailed “management response” to the report, detailing what he and other staffers considered to be dozens of errors, leaps of logic or otherwise misleading statements.

The response says that investigators did not follow proper procedures for working with senior agency officials and protecting those staffers’ “rights as persons of interest.” It says the report’s accusations “are based upon hearsay and comments made by select TEA staff, and there is no evidence nor credence” to concerns that the awarding of contracts was corrupted.

But the highlight is the claim of mistaken identity.

In the original investigation report, Mr. Scott is accused of intervening in how a specific contract was awarded to Emily Chick Miller, a woman the report described as a friend of his. The report alleges Mr. Scott negotiated the terms of Ms. Miller’s two contracts with an education service center in Waco, which totaled $200,000.

Mr. Scott denied the charges. But on Friday, he provided a more specific retort: Ms. Miller had negotiated her contracts with a different and unrelated person named Rob Scott, an executive at the Waco service center. “This mistake suggests that … [the investigation] was not thorough enough in its review process,” the management response states.

This new Rob Scott is on vacation and could not be reached by The Dallas Morning News, as is Mr. Donley, the inspector general. But one of the top officials on Mr. Donley’s staff said he spoke to Rob Scott by phone Friday afternoon.

“He said he had never had a conversation with Emily Chick in reference to that contract,” James Catazaro said. “He said she had never been in his office. He never negotiated with Emily Chick on either one of those contracts.” He said that Rob Scott called the claims of mistaken identity “absolutely incorrect.”

In response, Robert Scott – the TEA official – released e-mails he said were between Emily Chick Miller and the other Rob Scott. In the e-mails, they discuss a draft of Ms. Miller’s contract, among other subjects.

Mr. Catazaro could not be reached again after the release of the e-mails. But, earlier, he had said that Ms. Miller had turned over no such e-mails to investigators, despite being asked to produce all relevant documents.

Question of timing

Part of the debate within the agency is over why Mr. Scott is providing this information now. Investigators say they gave him plenty of opportunity during the four-month investigation.

“We made three attempts to meet with Robert Scott,” Dr. Neeley, the former commissioner, said Friday. “I sent him a note saying we need to meet to finalize this and gave him until noon on Friday [June 8]. And when he canceled that last meeting, we said we’re tired of waiting. We’ve waited as long as we can.”

Investigators began work in February and conducted a brief interview with Mr. Scott not long after. But three attempts at follow-up interviews each fell through. Mr. Scott said those meetings were canceled for legitimate reasons, including a time when he had to be with his children at home. He also said he was not sure such a meeting would be proper.

“I had some significant concerns about going in a private meeting with the inspector general and telling him he was wrong,” Mr. Scott said.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said investigators had a different perspective. “I think Michael [Donley] believes Robert didn’t want to meet with him,” she said.

Dr. Neeley said she was the one who decided it was time to conclude the investigation and issue a final report. During previous investigations, that decision had been left to Mr. Donley, the inspector general.

In an e-mail sent last week to top agency officials, Mr. Donley said the final report that was issued was actually a 2-month-old rough draft, and that he had wanted more time to fine-tune it.

“Needless to say, the decision to finalize was not mine,” Mr. Donley wrote in the e-mail.

Dr. Neeley said the investigation had dragged on too long, and that she was satisfied Robert Scott and others had “ample opportunity” to give their side of the story.

Political factors?

The timing of the report’s release – on Dr. Neeley’s last day – has led many agency employees to whisper about its possible political intentions. Mr. Scott is considered one of the likely candidates to be Dr. Neeley’s permanent replacement, and the report’s findings may have hurt his chances.

During their years in office, Mr. Scott and Dr. Neeley had no major public disputes. But agency staffers have long characterized their relationship as less than perfect.

“We had a very cordial relationship,” Mr. Scott said. “We had some policy disagreements.”

Dr. Neeley is a former teacher and superintendent who took over the commissioner’s job in 2004. Mr. Scott is a lawyer whose background is more in state-level policymaking. He is also considered an ally of Gov. Rick Perry, who decided not to reappoint Dr. Neeley and has expressed his confidence in Mr. Scott.

Dr. Neeley said that over the past year and a half, she and Mr. Scott “sort of grew apart – he did his own thing, and I did mine.”

“We could go a couple months without sitting down and talking,” she said. “But we never had a cross word in front of anybody. People want this to be about a power struggle, and they’re going to think whatever they want to think. But we always got along really well.”

That said, Mr. Scott said Fridayhe had not spoken to Dr. Neeley since her departure from office a week ago, despite questions about how the investigation concluded.

And, when asked whether she supported Mr. Scott as a potential permanent commissioner, Dr. Neeley said she would prefer a candidate who has had more direct experience with public schools.

“I would hope that the next commissioner is a superintendent,” she said. “I think you need a practitioner in that position who has walked a mile in those shoes. I think it brings tremendous credibility to the position.”

Neeley’s view

Dr. Neeley said she did not believe the report uncovered any improper activity by Mr. Scott or other officials at the agency.

“I don’t think any of them would do anything malicious or capricious or unethical or illegal,” she said. “They all have very high moral standards and are good people.”

She said that hiring friends into prominent positions or giving them contracts is unavoidable in the confined world of Texas education, where many of the prominent players have known each other for years. “The key is getting procedures and policies in place that make the process as fair and open and transparent as possible,” she said.

She said she is confident that the original citizen complaint that prompted the investigation – that contracts in one part of the agency were “regularly and systemically manipulated” – was not true. “I still have the utmost confidence in the process,” she said.

What happens next is unclear. Officials in the state auditor’s office are considering their options, which could include a new investigation. TEA investigators said they stand by their report and have no plans to open their investigation, although they could release an amended report if they found factual errors.

Mr. Donley would not have the authority to reopen the investigation himself, officials said. That order would have to come, perhaps ironically, from Mr. Scott.