Former DeKalb County schools chief Crawford Lewis and his top construction official were indicted last month on charges they profited off a racketeering scheme focused on school construction.
In the largest school system scandal in recent memory, a grand jury returned an indictment May 26 alleging Lewis, former schools construction chief Pat Reid and her ex-husband Tony Pope conspired to defraud the school district of about $2.4 million through illegal construction contracts.
Reid, formerly known as Pat Pope, has been the subject of a widely publicized, 18-month investigation into those contracts. For months, law enforcement officials have believed she illegally used her role as the district’s construction chief to dole out lucrative contracts to Pope. Lewis has been fingered as the sign-off man who participated in the conspiracy in exchange for pricey tickets to athletic events such as Atlanta Hawks playoff games and the Masters golf tournament and other perks.
District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming said the racketeering scheme was the largest she had encountered in her 17-year career as a prosecutor.
“These folks have been working around the clock for the past 18 months,” she said, referring to her staff. “We will bring the county one step closer to understanding (the) truth.”
Lewis, who was terminated by the school board last month after a 33-year career with the school district, faces several charges: four racketeering counts, theft by a government employee and bribery. Reid faces seven charges: four racketeering counts, theft by a government employee, bribery and falsifying public documents.
Pope, an architect who worked for the school system, was charged with four counts of racketeering, and Reid’s secretary, Cointa Moody, was also charged with four counts of racketeering and theft by a government employee.
The racketeering scheme
The scheme focused on a grouping of construction projects: Columbia High School, Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, Arabia Mountain High School and the Mountain Industrial Center in Stone Mountain, where the district has relocated its administrative offices.
Pope was paid nearly $1.5 million for work on Columbia High, Fleming said. Only about $342,000 was legitimately earned, she said. According to the indictment, Pope made this money in several ways: Change orders that Reid and Lewis signed were not sent to the board of education for approval as required, and the work on those orders was never performed. Pope wasn’t permitted to work for Reid because the two were married – a violation of school district ethics. Other work was not sent out for competitive bidding to give other companies an opportunity to apply for the work, and Lewis and Reid also gave contracts to construction firms that used Pope as a subcontractor, creating another conduit to steal taxpayer dollars.
During the construction of the learning academy, Pope surreptitiously advised contractors who worked on the school and benefited from inside information from his wife. Lewis signed off an $11.9 million payment to CDM, a construction firm, from which Pope was paid more than $166,000. Moody also notarized Pope’s pay applications, Fleming said.
On the Mountain Industrial Center, Pope worked with Nix-Fowler Constructors and helped them win a $17.6 million construction contract from which Pope was paid nearly $856,000. Again, the school board was never informed of his involvement in the project, and Pope and Lewis claimed counsel had signed off on it after the fact. At the end, an estimated $1.1 million was paid to Pope from the school’s construction fund.
On the Arabia Mountain High project, Reid awarded the contract to Turner Construction, a company for which she had previously worked. Lewis and Reid also took $10,000 in tickets to the 2008 Masters golf tournament, $4,000 in tickets to the next year’s tournament and premium Hawks tickets from Turner Construction. The gifts were never disclosed to the board.
Reid also fired Heery-Mitchell, which had overseen construction contracts for the district, and replaced them with Gude, an Atlanta company she knew from previous employment, the indictment indicates. Gude eventually provided Reid and Pope nearly $4,000 worth of Atlanta Falcons tickets, nearly $19,000 worth of tickets to the 2007 Final Four college basketball tournament and $920 in tickets to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Lewis, Reid and Pope also received tickets to the 2008 Atlanta mayoral ball. Lewis and Reid also purchased their government cars at discounts and had repairs made with taxpayer money.
Moody, who earned a $60,000 salary while working for Reid, received $42,312 in overtime pay in 2009 after earning only $10,000 in overtime pay the year before. It was eventually discovered that Moody earned that pay while doing personal errands for Reid, Fleming said.
Lewis and Moody were released shortly after the indictment was announced on a $200,000 bond. Pope and Reid, whose bond was initially set at $1 million each, successfully argued to have their bond lowered to $400,000 each on May 28. Pope and Reid’s attorneys argued that Pope’s finances have been decimated by publicity surrounding the investigation, and he was not a flight risk. Regardless, both defendants claimed they couldn’t afford the bail price and considered it too high because they did not intend to leave the area. Judge C.J. Becker ordered them to surrender their passports.
All four defendants await trial.
The school board
Fleming said the school board was intentionally misled about the criminal scheme. Board Chair Thomas Bowen was quick to reiterate that the day after the indictment was announced.
“This has been a cloud over the DeKalb County School System for over a year now,” he said. “The board was misled about any work that should not have been going on.”
The school board will investigate whether any of its policies could be strengthened in a way that would prevent future malfeasance, Bowen said. The board will soon also begin the process of hiring a new superintendent, a national search that could take between 12 and 18 months.
“I think there’s some comfort that we need to give to that candidate,” Bowen said.
All other board members declined to comment after Bowen ended the press conference.
“We want to let the judicial process run its course,” he said.