State auditor to probe TEA; Contract inquiry comes on heels of internal investigation

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Amid all the confusion surrounding an internal investigation at the Texas Education Agency, the state auditor’s office has decided to take its own look at how the agency hands out lucrative contracts.

“Perhaps they can talk to all the parties involved and resolve all this,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. “Good luck.”

State auditor John Keel confirmed Tuesday that his office had opened an investigation but said that he could not comment further.

Although it will probably be weeks or months before the new investigation is concluded, it could help to settle the confusion that surrounds the internal investigation’s report – in particular one footnote that has implications for Robert Scott, TEA’s acting commissioner.

He was criticized last month when the TEA investigation found evidence he improperly intervened in a contract awarded to a friend of his named Emily Chick Miller.

Mr. Scott vigorously denied the charges, and he responded last week by saying he was the victim of a case of mistaken identity. He said investigators may have confused him with a different education official with the same name – an administrative employee who works in the Waco regional education office that handled the contract.

That second Mr. Scott now also denies he did the things the report alleges the first Mr. Scott did.

(Thankfully for clarity’s sake, the acting education commissioner goes by Robert Scott. The Waco-based official uses the name Rob Scott.)

In the disputed footnote, investigators say Ms. Miller told them she negotiated the contract terms – “including the scope of work and the amount to be paid” – with the TEA Robert Scott before the contract was ever steered to the Waco office. The $100,000 contract was to evaluate the state’s hearings process in discipline cases.

Through a spokeswoman, the Waco Rob Scott said Tuesday that he had nothing to do with the negotiations the footnote describes – that he had simply handled some of the contract’s administration.

“He did not negotiate any terms, any amounts, anything,” said Jennifer Marshall-Higgins of the Waco office. “He did the paperwork.”

But Ms. Marshall-Higgins added that, as far as officials in the Waco regional office know, the TEA Robert Scott also had no role in any such negotiations, either.

There is confusion over one other part of the disputed footnote. It quotes TEA’s Robert Scott as saying he recommended Ms. Miller to Tom Norris, the head of the Waco office. But both Mr. Scott and Dr. Norris now say that that isn’t accurate – that Mr. Scott played no role in leading Ms. Miller to be hired.

TEA Inspector General Michael Donley, who led the internal investigation, declined to comment Tuesday.

Robert Scott became acting commissioner on July 1, when Commissioner Shirley Neeley stepped down.

He had previously been deputy commissioner. He is considered a possible permanent successor to Dr. Neeley, which has turned his appearance in the disputed footnote into a political issue.

The one person who, perhaps more than anyone, could testify as to the actual events is Ms. Miller.

The report finds a number of instances where she allegedly benefited from the intervention of others. She has not responded to multiple attempts to contact her, via phone and e-mail.