The Cranky Taxpayer

The Cranky Taxpayer

FOIA Suit


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In January, 2008, I made a Freedom of Information Act request for documents surrounding the curious case of Tom Sheeran.  He was the the Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations who resigned on November 19, 2007 but whom the School Board was continuing to pay until the end of March, 2008.

The School Board's response was dumb and unlawful.  I sued.  You can jump to the result here or you can parse the suit papers in the following chronology:

  • January 29, 2008       Verified Complaint (that sets out the history of the request and responses)

  • January 31                RPS produces the unlawfully withheld first two pages of the Hawkins letter.

  • February 4                RPS produces an unlawfully withheld letter to Hawkins.

  • March 24                  Hearing before Judge Hughes

  • April 1                      School Board Brief and our letter brief

  • April 3                      Letter Opinion from Judge Hughes

  • April 23                    Final Order requiring School Board to produce draft Sheeran agreement, pay fees, comply with Act

  • May 1                      The Draft Sheeran Agreement

 

The Outcome

When you have a good case and a good lawyer, as I did, you can expect to win.  That's what happened.  I got an order requiring the School Board to cough up the draft Sheeran Agreement that they had unlawfully withheld, to pay my attorney's fee of $4,500, and to never, ever again violate the Act when I ask for public records.  That last one may be the most fun: Next time they mess up like this, it will be contempt of court.

As to the Agreement, viewed in light of the Hawkins letter it suggests that the School Board had three options: (1) extend the separation date (and pay more money to Sheeran for not working); (2) take a more narrow release from Sheeran (the "throw Carol Wolf under the wheels of the bus" option); or (3) stand firm for the original bargain per the draft Agreement.  We don't know what they did because they are keeping it secret.  Whatever they did, however, it is clear that they were going to continue to pay Sheeran at least $43,000 for not working and give him a general release (promise to not sue him).

The question for us is what the School Board got for all that money and the release.  I can imagine two possibilities:

  • Pay for Peace: Sheeran did something to cause RPS to want to fire him.  Rather than risk an ugly fight, RPS paid Sheeran $43,000+ to go quietly.

  • Pay for Silence: Keep Sheeran from talking about the computer center move and the missing millions. 

If it's Pay for Peace, it would not be unusual behavior for a bureaucracy.  $43K is a LOT cheaper than a big lawsuit.  Heck, they paid $4,500 just for my attorney's fees in my little suit, plus who knows how much to their own lawyers.  I think Pay for Peace is unlikely, however.  Sheeran was a careful bureaucrat and it's most unlikely he did anything that his boss didn't want done.

Pay for Silence makes more sense.  Sheeran knew where the bodies were buried (notably as to the moving of the computers and the missing millions in Dalal's audit) and he had to know that a shakeup was coming.  The money would keep him quiet and the release would assure him the School Board could not come after him for any part in the situation.

In either case, we have the School Board turning a public issue (at least $43,000 to Sheeran; $700,000 to move the computers; $?? million being wasted; plus the chain of responsibility for what was going on) into a personnel issue in an effort to keep it secret.  Just because the Act may let them do that does not make it a good idea.  Indeed, if the new people coming in are to fix the financial mess at RPS, the first issue is for them to know what the problems have been.  Likewise, there is an election coming up in which this story (and the chain of accountability for whatever RPS is trying to hide) might well be important to the voters.

For sure, there can be no legitimate reason for all this secrecy.

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Last updated 04/01/12
Please send questions or comments to John Butcher