WILMINGTON — The law firm hired by the New Hanover County Board of Education to perform an investigation into the school district has yet to answer questions about how its role will impact the civil suit against the school district or other alleged victims of its employees; these questions were posed by the attorneys representing the alleged victims of former teacher and convicted sex offender Michael Earl Kelly in mid-July.
The board announced it would conduct an internal investigation following the sentencing of Kelly when Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan stated that Kelly told the FBI and other authorities that the school system had cleared him of accusations of sexual misconduct in 2006 but hadn’t notified law enforcement — a violation of both school policy and state law.
In July, the board announced it would hire the Brooks, Pierce law firm to organize a team, lead by attorney Jill R. Wilson, who had previously defended the district on several occasions.
Later that month, two Wilmington law firms announced a class action lawsuit against Kelly, then-Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday, Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley, numerous yet-to-be-named employees, and the district itself. The suit was filed on behalf of three plaintiffs — the number later grew to six — including some against whom Kelly had already admitted committing sexual offenses.
In conjunction with the filing of that suit, the Rhine and Lea/Schultz wrote a letter to Wilson and Brooks, Pierce addressing a series of concerns.
How will the investigation impact civil suit, other possible victims?
Several of the questions involve how Willson’s investigation will impact the civil suit, including whether the results of the investigation will be subject to attorney-client privilege, used to defend the district, or shared with Tharrington Smith (the Raleigh-based law firm the board has hired to defend it in the civil suit).
Further, the letter asks if the information gathered by Wilson and her team would be subject to discovery in court. In other words, would Brooks, Pierce object to sharing that information as part of a civil suit against the district?
These questions essentially ask if the investigation will be used to help alleged and established victims, or solely to defend the school, or if the information gathered by Wilson’s team will be open to all parties.
The letter also asks, more generally, if the results of Wilson’s investigation will be made public, or if parts – or all – of the report will be kept private (the school board has declined to answer the same question).
Along a related line of questioning, the letter asks what the investigation’s approach to Kelly’s victims and their families will be. This includes whether victims will be advised on their right to counsel, their right to decline interviews with Brooks, Pierce, and how information from interviews will be disseminated. It also asks if Brooks, Pierce believes NHCS will make it “compulsory and required” for current students to speak with the firm.
Most pointedly, the letter asks “will Michael Kelly’s sexual abuse victims and their families be advised that Brooks, Pierce represents NHCS who legal interests are directly opposed to the victims because NHCS may be liable for damages suffered by them” and “that the information gathered and prepared during the investigation, including in the interview, may be used against them, including any lawsuit the victims may file against NHCS, Michael Kelly, or anyone else?”
As of Wednesday, August 15, attorneys at the two law firms confirmed they had not received a response from Wilson or Brooks, Pierce. Wilson has not yet responded to a request for comment sent Wednesday morning.
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