A state investigator went to former Columbus Superintendent Gene Harris’ house a couple of weeks ago to interview her for prosecutors. She answered the door. And then she refused to talk to him.
Her attorney had advised against it, she told him.
In the past week or so, the district’s former data czar — who never has been interviewed by law-enforcement officials — hired a criminal-defense attorney.
In fact, many of the people implicated as key players in the Columbus City Schools’ student-data scandal have criminal-defense attorneys and are meeting with prosecutors. No charges have been filed; no plea deals have been made. State and federal prosecutors can’t say whether they plan to file charges or how long their investigations could take.
“We’re doing things, and we’re moving forward,” Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said last week. “We are making some progress.”
Prosecutors are reviewing evidence already gathered by the FBI and by investigators for State Auditor Dave Yost, whose 18-month investigation ended in late January and determined that the man known as the data czar, Steve Tankovich, led pervasive student-data fraud in the state’s largest school district and that Harris almost certainly knew about it.
They are conducting more interviews.
“We’re looking forward to meeting with the various groups and giving Mr. Tankovich’s side of the story. Every story has two sides,” his attorney, Mark C. Collins, said.
It still is not clear who would bring criminal charges or against whom. Federal prosecutors still are weighing whether federal law was broken. City lawyers are looking at misdemeanor crimes and “getting on the same page” as the other prosecutors, said Columbus City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer.
“It’s a very involved and deliberate process,” said Fred Alverson, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Columbus.
Investigators, law-enforcers and even school-district officials often describe the Columbus case as complex or, as Alverson said, “involved.” To some outside observers, that seems a euphemism for slow.
It has been nearly two years since The Dispatch reported that administrators in the district were changing vast amounts of student data, which prompted the state and federal investigations into Columbus’ practices. But nothing is neatly wrapped up yet.
Alverson said the review of the evidence alone has taken longer than federal prosecutors thought it would. The school district had planned to start the firing process in mid-February for four principals who were found to have manipulated (or ordered the manipulation of) students’ grades and attendance data.
But that didn’t happen until last week, when the school board moved to start firing two of those principals. The other two resigned. The two being fired are fighting it, which means they’re entitled to a hearing. They also have sued the school board and several current and former administrators in a bid to get their jobs back and collect monetary damages.
The district also said more employees would face discipline, but none has. Columbus’ in-house attorney said the district is reviewing evidence, too. It isn’t waiting to see whether criminal charges will be filed or waiting to see whether the Ohio Department of Education takes action against any employees’ educator licenses.
“We’re looking at a lot of things from a variety of sources. We’re doing the work and doing the analysis. It’s not dependent on what’s being done elsewhere,” the lawyer, Larry Braverman, said.
He wouldn’t say what the analysis included. Early on in the investigations, the school board hired a law firm to help manage the data scandal, do its own inquiry and handle subpoenas and requests from the state and FBI. The firm, Porter Wright, still is on the job and helping with further employee discipline.
Over at the Education Department, the workload is heavy.
Three more lawyers are joining the department’s professional-conduct division, which is charged with investigating whether educators have engaged in misconduct. So far, more than 30 educators have been referred for their involvement in “scrubbing,” which is withdrawing, then quickly re-enrolling, students so that their test scores and absences did not count against their schools.
The 30 educators already referred for investigation likely didn’t all come from Columbus, as six other districts in Ohio were also found to have scrubbed their data.
By Jennifer Smith Richards - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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