Friday, September 03, 2010

TOP STORY > >Accusation of bribery appears to be political

Leader senior staff writer

Was the amateurish videotape purporting to show Pulaski County Special School District Board member Gwen Williams taking a bribe actually a clumsy dirty trick intended to embarrass the teachers’ union’s most stalwart supporter on the eve of the Sept. 21 school board election?

Or was the long-time school board member actually caught in the act of soliciting and taking a bribe?

The upcoming election may shift the balance of power in favor of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, wiping out board president Tim Clark’s anti-union coalition.

She is alleged in tapes and in a letter with implying she could get a concrete-sidewalk contract for a man if he would make it worth her while.

There has been no mention of any sidewalk work in PCSSD school board meetings and no contracts have been posted or awarded.

A videotape showing an unidentified man handing Williams an envelope as she sat on her front porch, a separate audio recording and a letter signed “Ricky Weathers” all were delivered to the homes of the other school board members. The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office says it has contacted a man by that name, who insists he didn’t sign the letter or know anything about the tapes.

In a different portion of the tape, $100 was placed in the envelope handed to Williams on tape. Her attorney, Willard Proctor Jr., says instead, it was a condolence card for the death of Williams’ uncle.

“Ms. Williams did absolutely nothing wrong,” Proctor said Friday. “She didn’t take a bribe. We believe she was set up to make her look bad and defame her. We know there are a lot of different things going wrong on the school board. People are motivated to do things that don’t make sense.”

Proctor stopped short of suggesting it was politically motivated.

School board member Char-lie Wood said he gave his copies to the statewide paper because sometimes the press can get to the bottom of matters better than the judicial system. He said both law enforcement and other media had copies of the tapes before he made them available to that paper.

It’s been alleged in blogs that Wood, who has worked long and hard to decertify the union as the teachers’ bargaining agent, could be up to mischief.

“That’s ridiculous,” Wood said Friday afternoon. “I was in Wichita Falls, Texas, in a bicycle race.”

He and Danny Gililland, another union opponent, are up for re-election to the board this month, and PACT is supporting their opponents, both of whom have ties to the union.

Currently, the union is on the short end of most board votes by a one-vote margin. If either Wood or Gililland loses, PACT is likely to be on the winning side of those votes, including a new vote to accept the union as the bargaining agent, and to accept the contract it had negotiated last December with the district’s negotiation team—a contract which union members ratified but the board refused to approve.

Wood, who talked with Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office investigators late Friday afternoon, said he was not linked in any way to the tapes and the letter, and knew nothing about them.

He said Williams is not up for re-election and is not running against him or Gililland and that there was no political benefit in implicating her in a bribe.

He did say that if Williams was accepting bribes, she should be caught, even if by a whistle blower.

Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley, who asked the sheriff’s office to investigate, is clearly upset that the matter was referred to the board members and not to his office or the sheriff’s office.

“It’s caused a lot of effort to be extended that didn’t have to be,” Jegley said Friday afternoon. “We don’t know the truth of the matter yet. It’s a big, old stupid mess. If someone thinks a crime has been committed, they ought to report it to the police.”

“We’re trying to find out who the black male in the video is and the person filming,” said Lt. Carl Minden. “We’re just engaged in fact-finding.”

Minden said the sheriff’s office had talked to most of the school board members, including Williams. He said she was not formally interviewed and is not a suspect.

“There’s an allegation but no way to confirm it,” Minden said. “The video is not going to be enough to put a charge on somebody.

“It’s hard to tell who’s the suspect and who’s the victim,” he said.

If Williams is the innocent victim, both the prosecutor and the sheriff’s office say no crime may have been committed, but that she could have civil remedies against anyone who may have defamed her. In other words, she could sue.