Five months after the school district called an emergency meeting to announce an investigation into grade-tampering allegations at Hillhouse High, the probe plods on at a pace of a few hours a month.
In an “emergency” pre-Christmas meeting last year, Superintendent of Schools Reggie Mayo revealed that he had commissioned an official investigation into allegations that some Hillhouse students’ grades had been improperly changed. Principal Kermit Carolina swung back, calling the probe a “political lynching,” in alleged retribution for his declining to support Mayor John DeStefano in a campaign photo op.
In December, Mayo hired Floyd Dugas of Berchem, Moses & Devlin to conduct the investigation, which he estimated would take up to a month.
In other words, some time in January.
It’s May. The probe’s not over.
But that doesn’t mean the district’s lawyer has been burning the midnight oil to wrap it up.
Dugas’ firm billed the district $26,550 for work done on the probe through the end of April. Dugas did just 2.9 hours of work on the case in April, according to an Independent review of invoices. Dugas said he performed about the same number of hours in May. (The invoice was not yet available).
Carolina’s lawyer, Mike Jefferson, objected to the delay.
“This has to be the longest investigation that I’ve ever been a part of in my professional life,” Jefferson said. “I can’t for the life of me understand how an investigation could go on for four months and we have no conclusion, when it was supposed to be deemed an emergency.”
In an interview, Superintendent Mayo (pictured) said he had no way of predicting in December how long the probe would take.
“The more you get in, the more people you have to talk to,” he explained. Mayo said he has received a draft of an investigatory report, but he said there are errors that need to be corrected and the report is “not final.”
“I’ve asked [Dugas] to wrap it up and he will,” Mayo said. “Don’t ask me for a date.”
Jefferson has said the probe concerns the transcripts of three students at Hillhouse. The first two students took a summer course that was improperly coded; the transcripts did not reflect the fact that it was a college-level course. The transcripts were changed—probably sometime in September—to reflect the actual course the students took, according to Jefferson. The third involved a student who was supposed to get credit for a summer job through the Youth at Work program. Carolina has adamantly denied any wrongdoing in the case.
Reached Thursday, Dugas said he expects “very shortly” to produce an “interim report,” which would answer the allegations about the grade-tampering, and raise some additional concerns that were beyond the scope of his probe.
He said the bulk of the probe is completed: “We’re down to followup and clarification as opposed to any significant investigation.”
He called the duration of the probe typical. It was slowed by a “constellation” of factors, he said: “I had some difficulty getting documents and records that I needed to get.” And some witnesses were hard to reach.
“I did a draft report some time ago that I sent to the superintendent,” Dugas added. The superintendent “raised some questions that required followup.”
Dugas “finalized” a report on April 2, according to invoices his firm submitted.
Records show Dugas and his colleague, a 2007 law school graduate named Jeffrey Mogan, together performed 121 hours of work on the case from December through the end of April.
Dugas charged the city $225 per hour for his work; Mogan charged $185.
The probe dates back to Dec. 14, when Dugas had a phone conference with schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark about the “Hillhouse Investigation,” according to an invoice.
On Dec. 21, Dugas “attended” an interview with Shirley Love-Joyner, the assistant principal who kicked off the probe then filed a whistleblower lawsuit claiming retaliation. His firm spent 33 hours on the case that month.
Dugas’ firm spent 54 hours in January on the case, including interviewing and re-interviewing Carolina; collecting documents; and interviewing staff at Hillhouse, Riverside Academy, the school system’s central office and IT department, and Youth at Work.
In February, Dugas and Mogan looked into the “potential benefits to NCAA eligibility based upon changes to courses” as well as the Tenex system, a computer program that Carolina named as the real culprit. Dugas worked on preparing his investigatory report. The pair spent 26 hours on the case that month.
The case began to wind down in April.
Dugas “finalized” his report on April 2. He prepared correspondence to Mayo and “reviewed additional grade information” on April 10 for 24 minutes. Then he spoke with Mayo for 12 minutes on April 27 to confer about the status of the report. On April 30, he prepared a summary of the investigation and talked to Attorney Jefferson about it for a total of 1.5 hours.
That brought the total hours worked in April to 2.9.
Mayo said Tuesday that some part of the report needed to be clarified because of the way it did not accurately describe standard operating procedure in the schools.
Dugas said in the process of investigating grade-tampering allegations, he came across some other concerns.
“There are some things that I could pursue that go beyond the scope of the original complaint,” Dugas said. “At this point in time, for a variety of reasons including the lack of funding under our contract,” Mayo “has not authorized me to pursue these things.”
Dugas’ firm has four contracts with the city to handle four categories of legal work. The “labor” contract, under which the Hillhouse probe falls, is capped at $75,000, he said.
COO Clark said the district will be able to cover the cost without allocating extra money.
Jefferson called the whole probe “a spectacular waste of taxpayers’ money.”
“I can’t possibly understand why the city is still being billed for this matter,” Jefferson said. “This thing has turned into something that you would see in terms of a murder investigation. It’s just ridiculous. People have to learn to admit when they’re wrong.”
As Carolina continues to run Hillhouse, Jefferson said, the probe has been “a cloud over his head.”
“I’m just looking forward to this thing being behind us.”
• Asst. Principal Sues Ed Board In Hillhouse Case
• Jefferson: School Official Shouldn’t Be In Room
• Hillhouse Rallies For Carolina
• New Suspect Named In Grade-Changing Probe
• Jefferson Calls For “Conflict”-Free Investigator
• He Was Where?
• A Standoff In Grade Probe
• Investigation Formally Revealed At “Emergency” School Board Meeting
• Out Of Public View, Schools Rush “Emergency” Pre-Xmas Meeting On Grade-Altering Charges