Monday, June 06, 2011

TOP STORY >> Williams filing suit over plot

IN SHORT: Despite calling scheme “shameful,” prosecutor didn’t file charges against pair.

Infighting on the Pulaski County Special School District Board continues with one member suing another for a bribery scheme that misfired.

Board member Gwen Williams has sued former board president Tim Clark for allegedly plotting with Mills High School Principal Mike Nellums to make a video of her accepting a bribe from a fake contractor.

Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley called the incident “shameful” but did not file charges against the conspirators.

Williams wants $2 million in punitive damages, as well as $3 million for pain and suffering, mental anguish and harm to her reputation.

She has hired former Pulaski County Circuit Judge Willard Proctor Jr. as her attorney.

In a statement Friday, the Pulaski County Special School District said,  “The district learned today that PCSSD Board member Gwen Williams has filed a lawsuit against another board member and others that will play out in the courts in the coming months. Although the district is indirectly involved in this litigation, the lawsuit is a private-civil matter between parties which makes further comment by the district highly inappropriate. Our focus will remain on educating students as we prepare for an exciting, upcoming school year.”

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.
Clark has denied any involvement in the incident. He can’t be removed from the board unless he is charged with a felony, misses meetings or moves.

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 attorney fees.

He is also a member of the Little Rock School Board but can’t be removed from the board unless he’s charged with a crime.

After almost a year of investigation, Jegley released a three-page letter May 20 stating that the person 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 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.”

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.”

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. 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.

Clark 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 an e-mail last month.

“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.”