Tuesday, May 24, 2011

TOP STORY >> Bribe plot entangles 2 districts

Leader staff writer

How far will the repercussions from the supposed bribe of a Pulaski County Special School District Board member go?

So far, one of the two people purported to be behind the event, Mills High School Principal Mike Nellums, has been placed on administrative leave with pay for the rest of the school year, and he could end up being fired from his $103,000 position for violations of the state ethics code.

Nellums was formerly the principal at Jacksonville Middle School and was reassigned. At that time he sued the district and reached a settlement last year of $50,000 plus $25,000 for attorney fees. The settlement also includes a letter of recommendation from then school board president Tim Clark if ever needed.

Nellums is also a member of the Little Rock School Board. That board’s president, Melanie Fox, said the incident does concern her, but there are only three ways a school board member can be removed. They either have to commit a felony, miss three meetings in a row or move out of their zone.

“It’s my understanding that no charges are going to be filed, he’s attending meetings and is still in his zone,” she said.

The other person involved in the incident, according to Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley was Clark, a current PCSSD school board member and former board president, who has denied any involvement in the incident. Witnesses say he may have provided $2,500 in cash to video another board member accepting a bribe.

Just like Nellums, he can’t be removed from the board unless he is charged with a felony, misses meetings or moves.

But it can make it tough for the PCSSD board to move forward with both Clark and Gwen Williams, who allegedly took the bribe, on the board.

Williams said she will sue for entrapment and humiliation.

Charles Hopson, Pulaski County Special School District superintendent, said Monday, “Prosecutor Larry Jegley is correct in noting that the alleged scheme involving board member Tim Clark and PCSSD principal Mike Nellums is a ‘distraction’ which, in my opinion, takes the focus off our very important mission of educating our children. As it should, the public expects school administrators, educators, and elected officials to maintain exemplary standards of professional conduct and provide competent leadership.

“Accordingly, under our new administration, I continue to stress the importance of transparency and accountability, and I am hopeful that the problems of the past will take on less significance as we move toward the future.

“Although Mr. Jegley found no criminal action, it remains to be seen if the alleged actions by Mr. Clark and Mr. Nellums were violations of ethical standards which would warrant further corrective action by this district and/or the various state boards. Today, PCSSD placed Mr. Nellums on administrative leave pending further investigation by the District.

What is clear is that despite this distraction the District will continue to “turn the corner” as was recently stated by a board member of the Arkansas State Board of Education during its meeting.”
The board will be meeting Wednesday evening — not to discuss this issue, but to look at options regarding the recent desegregation ruling by federal Judge Brian Miller, which takes about $17 million in funding away from the district.

The bribery incident goes back to last summer when many board members received a videotape that appeared to show Williams taking a $100 bribe from a contractor.

“I didn’t do it. I’m innocent,” Williams said last August, and then referred all other questions to her attorney, William Proctor Jr. She is having her lawyer field all calls on this latest turn.

All board members, except Williams, received a letter and two recordings last summer that apparently showed her taking a $100 bribe.

The one-page letter delivered to most board members at their homes included the typed name but no written signature of a man identifying himself as Ricky Weathers, who said he was a masonry specialist from North Little Rock.

“I’ll give ya’ll a chance to get this woman straight,” the letter said about Williams. “All I can say is ya’ll need some help on this school board. This woman is a crook and doesn’t care one bit who knows. Somebody ought to call the police on her.”

The man told board members in his letter that he was seeking a contract to pour concrete sidewalks at Harris Elementary School, which is in Williams’ school board zone 7 in the McAlmont community.

“After speaking with Mrs. Williams, I was concerned about her general integrity and intent,” the letter said.

“Mrs. Williams in a roundabout way told me if I took care of her, she would take care of me. I’ve done school work before but never had a board member tell me that. She kind of stated that she needed some help with her bills, and could use some help getting her car fixed. It did look like it needed some shocks or something.

“The contract is a state contract for concrete work so I thought I should just help her,” he said in the letter, “but to protect myself and to let you know how it really works out here, I videotaped and audio taped the meeting.”

Neither the videotape nor audiotape seem to be clear or conclusive enough to say for sure that a bribe took place.

After almost a year of investigation, the prosecuting attorney released a three-page letter May 20 stating that the man purported to be the contractor was a man named Ervin Bennett.

Bennett, who volunteered to cooperate with authorities, said he was brought into the scheme by Nellums and Clark. He said Nellums and Clark believed that Williams was taking bribes and that they wanted to prove it.

Cell phone records show that the three did make numerous phone calls to each other the month before the incident occurred.

The person who actually filmed the “bribe” was identified as Craig Tissue.

Clark was interviewed by Pulaski County sheriff’s deputies and Jegley said it was apparent that he was trying to “perpetuate the ruse.”

Clark, in an email statement Tuesday, accused the prosecutor of cutting a deal with Bennett in return for immunity against prosecution.

“We believe individuals in Mr. Jegley’s office offered Mr. Bennett immunity and it appears those people based their report entirely on this man’s allegations. Mr. Jegley’s office did not contact me prior to releasing last week’s report,” Clark wrote in the e-mail.

“I never asked Mr. Bennett or anyone else to contact Gwen Williams to make any type of bribe. Mr. Bennett called me a number of times and that is reflected in phone records. He asked for money, and I never gave him a cent.

“I never recruited Mr. Bennett to do anything, much less provide him with a script. I met with Mr. Bennett once and recorded the conversation. During that conversation, he again asked for money. I never gave him a cent. I told him to call the police numerous times. There are witnesses to these conversations that overheard my telling Mr. Bennett to contact the police.

“I have never laid eyes on Mr. Tissue (the private investigator). I did not hire him; I did not give him money, and I did not ask him or anyone else to create a video. I did not give money to Mr. Nellums to give to Mr. Bennett, Mr. Tissue or anyone else.

“Gwen Williams originally stated the money was a gift, and $100 was in the envelope. Mr. Bennett said the envelope contained $250. I don’t know what was in the envelope because again, I had nothing to do with it.

“I am extremely disappointed that reports have circulated that dispute the actual events that occurred. I am innocent and will make every effort possible to clear my name. I intend to set the record straight once and for all.”

Jegley concluded that Clark and Nellums were not trying to capture an actual crime but the appearance of impropriety.

The prosecuting attorney wrote that the “juvenile cloak-and-dagger means to discredit Williams would verge on the ridiculous if it weren’t for the sad fact that both these men hold important positions in the education of the children of this community.”

Jegley went on, “The entire affair is sad and has been a terrible distraction of law enforcement resources and of a beleaguered school district which has been struggling to improve. Put bluntly, what happened is shameful.”

But because no charges will be filed against them, the pair will continue to be school board members.

School board president Bill Vasquez would not say if Nellums should be fired. “It’s just another personnel matter,” he said. Nellums was a vocal critic of Vasquez, who consolidated Jacksonville’s single-gender middle schools in 2008. But the board president says he takes no joy in Nellums’ downfall. “There’s no joy in that stuff,” he said.

As for Clark, Vasquez said, “(He’s) still a member of the school board in good standing. Arkansas law is very clear, you have to go AWOL or commit a felony” to be removed from a school board.