Scott school board member and a candidate say FBI interviewed them

gkocher1@herald-leader.comOctober 17, 2012 

A Scott County school board member and a candidate for the school board both said Wednesday they were separately interviewed by the FBI about a letter that sought a meeting of six challengers opposing incumbent school board member Luther Mason.

Haley Conway, 1st District school board member, and Harold Jessie, a candidate for the 3rd District, said they also were asked questions about school construction projects.

The letter sought a meeting with opponents of Mason in the 3rd District race. Conway, who is opposed for re-election in the 1st district, said the letter was interpreted by some as having the purpose to "get some of them to drop out" so that Mason, who has been on and off the school board for the past 35 years, would not be re-elected. In addition to Jessie, the other candidates running against Mason are Karen Cropper, Greg Earlywine, Jennifer Holbert, David Poer and Darlene Rains.

Asked whether he thought the meeting was to get someone to drop out, Jessie said: "It would have to be, because why would people running for the same office go to a meeting where they were going to discuss strategies and change of leadership? Why would you go to a private meeting to discuss your campaign with people you're running against?"

Jessie, who declined the invitation to the meeting, said he gave a copy of the letter and its envelope to the FBI.

"I wanted to share with them the concerns about this letter, and I didn't want someone to think I was attending some secret meeting to affect the school board race," Jessie said. "The people of Scott County will decide who is going to win the school board race. It's not for me to go to some secret meeting with people who are running for the same office."

Mary Trotman, FBI special agent and media coordinator for the bureau's Louisville office, would not confirm or deny Wednesday whether the FBI was investigating the school district.

Because the Nov. 6 school board race occurs simultaneously with a federal election for president and Congress, the FBI might be looking at a possible violation of federal election law. For example, it might be construed that the letter was an attempt to tamper with the vote in a federal election. In that context, even local races come under federal jurisdiction.

In addition, the FBI might be investigating whether the school board inappropriately used money received from the federal government.

The Scott County school district already has been under investigation by the state Office of Education Accountability regarding a 15 percent raise for Superintendent Patricia Putty, a school board trip to Northern Kentucky, and hiring at the middle school.

In a brief interview Wednesday, Bill Keller of Georgetown acknowledged sending the letter, but he would not discuss it, and he would not say what type of business he conducts.

The meeting of the 3rd District candidates was canceled and was never held.

"Evidently I struck a nerve with someone running in the 3rd district as there is an opinion on the Web that I was trying to 'fix' this race," reads a second letter signed by a "Bill Keller" and obtained by the Herald-Leader.

Fixing the election "was not the intent either in the letter or at our meeting," the letter says. "It was only to meet and discuss how we change the leadership on (the) Nov. 6th school board election."

Later the cancellation letter says, "My sincere apologies for trying to find a way to move the incumbent out and a new person in. Sorry for the inconvenience as I never intended this to be anything more than a meet, greet and let us make sure we all get enough votes to defeat the incumbent."

Mason, the 3rd District incumbent, said Wednesday that he did not receive the letter but had heard about it.

Conway said the FBI agent asked about the letter in their early-October conversation.

"He asked, 'Are you aware of the letter?'" Conway said. "I said, 'Yeah, yeah, I have heard about it, but I have not seen it. I was read the contents by another candidate.'"

Conway said the letter "did not have anything to do with my district or my race."

Conway, who has been on the school board for eight years, announced at a special meeting of the board Tuesday night that he had been interviewed for two hours by the FBI.

Conway announced the investigation during a discussion in which the board eventually voted 4-1 to approve an extension of the contracts for Sherman Carter Barnhart, a Lexington architectural firm, and Alliance Corp., a Glasgow construction management company.

"In every new-school construction project in Scott County, the architecture firm Sherman Carter Barnhart has been the architect, period," Conway said Wednesday. However, smaller renovation projects will go to other architectural firms, he said.

"It gives the perception that you're spreading the wealth out, but in actuality, every new school that has been built, ... they've used Sherman Carter Barnhart," Conway said.

Likewise, Alliance Corp. has been the construction management company on all the projects, Conway said.

"Since I've been on the board, I had questioned the continued use of certain architects and certain construction management firms in our district," Conway said. "There may not be any improprieties — I've never said there were — but it's the perception. ... And apparently those same concerns have been voiced to the FBI separate from me."

Mike Luscher, the school district's director of facilities, said Tuesday night that an advisory committee that does not include him makes the recommendations on firms. Once the school board approves, those actions are submitted to the Kentucky Department of Education for review and approval, he said.

"I have to submit this stuff to KDE, so in essence, it's not like you're standing out there alone — I'm talking about the board — because basically we take a step, the department approves. We take another the step, the department approves," Luscher said Tuesday night.

Conway was the lone "no" vote Tuesday night to approve continuing an architect's contract with Sherman Carter Barnhart and continuing a construction management contract with Alliance Corp. for the $8 million second phase of a new elementary school. Board members Mason, Phyllis Young, Rebecca Sams and Roger Ward all voted to approve the contract extensions and to proceed with the second phase of the elementary school project.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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