Tuesday, October 4, 2022

New Hanover School Board approves law firm for investigation, questions and concerns remain

The Board of Education approved a contract with the Brooks, Pierce law firm to conduct a 'broad' and apparently open-ended internal investigation. (Port City Daily photo / File)
The Board of Education approved a contract with the Brooks, Pierce law firm to conduct a ‘broad’ and apparently open-ended internal investigation. (Port City Daily photo / File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Education voted Tuesday night to hire the Brooks, Pierce law firm to look into a ‘broad range’ of issues at the school. But questions remain about how the investigation will proceed, and one board member has voiced concerns about the firm being too close to the school.

Related: New Hanover School Board Chair responds to questions about independent investigation

The board voted 6-1 to approve a contract with Brooks, Pierce, to conduct an investigation described as ‘broad.’

According to board member Judy Justice, the sole dissenting vote, attorney Jill R. Wilson and her team told board members that the investigation would not be limited to the recently reported allegations that the New Hanover County Schools district had investigated convicted sex-offender and former teacher Michael Earl Kelly but failed to contact law enforcement as required by state law.

Justice said the investigation would “lead itself,” and would extend to “whatever and whoever” was necessary; adding that the board could also direct public concerns to Wilson’s team for them to investigate.

There’s no official time table for the investigation, although, in an interview on the Tyler Cralle Show, New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White — who, like other commissioners, has been working with the board on addressing the fallout from the Kelly scandal — said he expected at least some results in around six months.

When the potential – now approved – contract was first announced last week by a district spokesperson, the district specifically referenced criminal investigation into Kelly, and noted that “the Board is prepared to examine its past practices and history, most of which pre-dates the current board members.”

However, a number of recent issues including the handling of former student Sarah Johnson’s Title IX violation allegations, the behavior of Nicholas Oates, the controversial Spanish immersion program at Forest Hills Elementary, and other allegations have occurred while several current board members – including Chairwoman Lisa Estep, who was elected 2012, and Jeanette Nichols, elected 2000 – were in office. Justice said the issue of whether Wilson and her team would look into the board, or solely the administration, did not come up during Tuesday’s meeting, but said she assumed Wilson would investigate “wherever was warranted.”

Estep has not yet responded to questions about whether, if the investigation ends up involving sitting board members, there a process in place for them to recuse themselves from further involvement with the investigation or the handling of its results. Neither Estep or the board have responded to questions on how – and if – the board will release the results of Wilson’s investigation when it is complete.

Other concerns

During the meeting, Justice raised another concern, requesting an addendum to the contract that would prevent Wilson from having any contact with the local office; the firm has a Wilmington office, located at 115 N. 3rd St. — a building the firm shares with City of Wilmington offices, as well as the Wilmington Star News, which was forced to relocate after Hurricane Florence.

Justice expressed concern that the law firm’s local office was too connected to local officials – having been hired by CFPUA after it was revealed the utility had been aware of GenX contamination – as well as “associates whose relatives worked for [the district] and who have close friendships with central office staff.” The board declined to second Justice’s motion.

“One of the reasons I wanted the addendum when I first heard about the situation, I felt like I was getting limited information, and I probably would have voted against [Wilson] had I known more,” Justice said.

There have also been concerns — voiced most notably by the Women Organizing for Wilmington (WoW) group — about attorney Edwin West, who works in the Wilmington branch of Brooks, Pierce. WoW has pointed to West’s page on the Brooks, Pierce website, which prominently features the following quote in regards to his work as a white-collar defense attorney:

“Some of my best work has happened quietly behind the scenes, protecting the reputation of a business or individual by making the issue go away. Many of my career highlights have never seen the light of day.”

West, it should be noted, has not been identified as part of Wilson’s team.

A final concern for some has been that Wilson previously represented both Superintendent Tim Markley and the New Hanover County School Board (including Estep and Jeanette Nichols) in 2013 when they were sued in Superior Court, as part of a team working for the Wilmington office of Brooks, Pierce.

In 2013, Jill R. Wilson defended Superintendent Tim Markley and the Board of Education in Superior Court. (Port City Daily photo / File)
In 2013, Jill R. Wilson defended Superintendent Tim Markley and the Board of Education in Superior Court. (Port City Daily photo / File)

The suit, which concerned the appropriation of public school funds required to be provided to charter schools, was thrown out. Around the same time, the district brought back the Deputy Superintendent position for Dr. Rick Holliday; among his new responsibilities was overseeing a new in-house counsel, Wayne Bullard.

The district has not yet responded to a request for other previous contracts with Wilson; the board has not yet responded to questions about whether or not it considers it a conflict of interest that an attorney previously hired to defend the board and the district would now investigate it.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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