A Bad Start for the Oakland School Board 

As the board began to regain local control, the district involved itself in a messy and unnecessary legal battle.

For nearly six years, Oakland parents have yearned for the return of local control of their public schools. After all, the long-troubled school district didn't exactly prosper under state control. Then last spring, the state began handing over some responsibilities to the locally elected school board. At first, the move represented a sign of hope for parents who want a voice in their kids' education. But over the past several months, top school district officials have made a series of poor decisions that raise questions about whether the return of local control is actually in the best interest of Oakland schoolchildren.

The most recent example involves the expenditure of tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on an unnecessary, frivolous, and messy federal lawsuit against a small, respected Oakland law firm. The district, with the blessing of a majority of the school board during a closed-door meeting last month, filed the suit against the firm, Bryant and Brown, even though there is evidence it stemmed from a personal vendetta launched by the district's former top lawyer, Deborah Cooksey, against her onetime close friend, Meredith Brown. The suit, which Cooksey engineered, makes a series of over-the-top allegations against Brown and her firm, including the claim that it is guilty of "racketeering." However, as of Monday, the suit still contained no evidence to back up its claims, and school district officials are now refusing to comment on it.

Nonetheless, the district, with the okay of the school board, is plowing ahead with the lawsuit, and paying thousands in legal fees to a Walnut Creek firm to push the case in court, even though Cooksey has since resigned from the district. In addition, the agency must now spend even more money defending itself from a countersuit that Brown filed against Cooksey and the school district, alleging that Cooksey defamed her and her firm and launched a campaign to put her out of business. "We think Deborah Cooksey had an agenda, and she unleashed it on someone who she had been a friend, even a mentor to," said Vintage Foster, a spokesman for the Bryant and Brown law firm.

The lawsuit, which is based on Cooksey's investigation of Bryant and Brown and was pushed by her before she abruptly left the district earlier this month, alleges that Bryant and Brown is guilty of racketeering, fraud, and the "theft of public funds." Much of the lawsuit rests on Cooksey's allegation that the law firm purposely overbilled the district for about $51,000 in legal fees. The lawsuit also claims — again, based on Cooksey's allegations — that Bryant and Brown overcharged the district for $50,000 of work it did on a garbage contract and is guilty of "legal malpractice" in a case in which it represented the district, costing the public agency more than $600,000.

But the lawsuit and the district's own records, including Cooksey's report of her investigation into Bryant and Brown, appear to contain no evidence that the law firm intended to overbill the district or is guilty of anything remotely resembling racketeering, fraud, theft, and legal malpractice. In a face-to-face interview last week, Meredith Brown maintained that the overbilling was a simple mistake that occurred after her firm switched software programs. Brown said her accountant's own review concluded that her firm overbilled the district $39,000 and that she has already repaid that amount to the public agency.

So why is a cash-strapped school district spending tens of thousands of dollars on a lawsuit over what now amounts to a $12,000 billing dispute? Meredith Brown and her attorney, Zach Wasserman, of the prominent Oakland law firm Wendell, Rosen, Black, & Dean, believe it's based on personal animus that Cooksey harbors against her old friend. In her countersuit against the district, Brown claims that Cooksey's anger got so out of control that she falsely accused Brown and respected district facilities chief Tim White of having a romantic affair. In an interview, White said Cooksey made that false accusation to him directly last fall.

The roots of Cooksey's anger reach back to 2003, just before the district went bankrupt and was taken over by the state, Brown said. At the time, Superintendent Dennis Chaconas had transferred $17 million in interest from construction bonds to the district's general fund to avoid further cuts in employee salaries, Brown said. Chaconas had based his decision on a recommendation from the office of the district's general counsel, Roy Combs, which included his deputy, Deborah Cooksey. After Chaconas was fired and replaced by state Administrator Randy Ward, White asked Brown for a legal opinion on what Chaconas had done. Brown concluded that the fund transfer was probably illegal, because construction bonds, including the interest they generate, must be spent on facilities — not employee salaries.

Ward subsequently asked Brown to solicit the opinion of state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. In 2004, Lockyer's office concluded that Brown was right, so Ward transferred the $17 million back to the facilities fund. The move forced Ward to make across-the-board cuts, including salaries in the legal department. Cooksey soon resigned.

Cooksey's attorney, Louis Leone, who also represents the district in its case against Bryant and Brown and in the countersuit filed against the district, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Cooksey declined to comment. When asked why she left the district earlier this month, she replied "job dissatisfaction," and declined to elaborate. District spokesman Troy Flint also declined to comment. Former district counsel Combs did not return a phone call.

Consequently, it is unclear whether Cooksey left the district in 2004 because of the salary cuts or for some other reason. What is clear, according to Brown, is that before the disagreement over the $17 million and the resulting cutbacks, she and Cooksey had been good friends. Brown said she often babysat Cooksey's daughter and became the girl's "surrogate aunt," and that Cooksey had considered herself to be Brown's mentor. The two once worked for the same Oakland law firm.

When Combs resigned from the district in 2007, state Administrator Kim Statham hired Cooksey to replace Combs as interim general counsel. Cooksey had returned to the district the year before in a non-legal role. According to Brown, when Cooksey took over for Combs, she immediately began to question Bryant and Brown's contract with the district, and instituted two audits of the firm's dealings with Oakland schools. Neither audit produced any evidence of wrongdoing.

But in the meantime, Brown had issued another legal opinion that called Cooksey's competence into question. It concerned the district's decision to lease the campus of a closed Oakland school to the charter school company Aspire. White had asked Brown to review the lease in preparation for a grant request for state construction funds. But Brown concluded that the lease, which Cooksey signed, mistakenly undercharged Aspire for facilities upkeep, costing the district up to $600,000 a year. Brown said she believes that her opinion embarrassed and further angered Cooksey, helping prompt the investigation last fall into her law firm.

Cooksey also launched a mistake-filled investigation into White, whom she tried to convince interim Superintendent Roberta Mayor to fire (see Full Disclosure, "A Witch Hunt at the Oakland Schools," 11/5/08). After White produced evidence refuting Cooksey's allegations, the investigation was dropped but Cooksey was not held accountable. Then top district officials, including the school board, bizarrely embraced Cooksey's allegations against Bryant and Brown, even though her claims appear to be just as troubling as the one against White.

In her defamation countersuit, Brown also alleges that Cooksey's animus led her to falsely accuse Bryant and Brown of pocketing $200,000 from an East Coast developer who wanted to buy the district's downtown property in 2006. The state had hired Bryant and Brown to see if it could generate enough money from the sale of the property to repay the $65 million the state had loaned the district. As part of that contract, Brown got the East Coast developer, TerraMark, to give the district a $200,000 down payment to help defray costs. In her countersuit, Brown produced a copy of the $200,000 canceled check from TerraMark, showing that the district — and not her firm — had in fact cashed it. (TerraMark ultimately backed out of the deal after the proposed sale of the property engendered widespread opposition from Oakland residents and political leaders — but Brown made sure the district got to keep the $200,000 down payment.)

As for Cooksey's allegation that Bryant and Brown overcharged the district on a garbage contract, Brown contends that Cooksey overlooked the amount of effort the law firm put into the contract. According to Brown, it came to her attention in spring 2007 that the district's contract with Waste Management was about to expire and that district officials had planned to extend it without putting it out to bid. So when Brown told school officials that such a move probably would be illegal, the district hired her firm to quickly draft a request for proposals and contract, manage the process, and get Oakland schools a better deal. In her investigation, Cooksey claimed that Bryant and Brown just copied a contract from the City of Piedmont and didn't earn the $50,000 the district paid the firm. Brown acknowledged using the Piedmont contract as a template, but argued that she significantly altered and augmented it to fit Oakland's needs. An analysis by Full Disclosure confirmed that assertion.

Finally, as for Cooksey's allegation of legal malpractice, Brown and Wasserman say Cooksey simply has her facts wrong. The case involved a dispute with facilities contractors in which Bryant and Brown represented the district. Cooksey claimed Bryant and Brown screwed up the case and failed to properly negotiate a settlement, and that their errors cost the public agency more than $600,000. However, the case was extremely convoluted, and the district's lawsuit against Bryant and Brown to date includes no direct evidence to back up Cooksey's claim that Bryant and Brown did anything wrong.

So why did the school board go along with Cooksey's allegations and push forward with the suit against Bryant and Brown, especially after Cooksey messed up so badly in the Tim White investigation and doesn't even work for Oakland schools anymore? Multiple sources said board members did not know about Cooksey and Brown's personal history and onetime friendship. Alice Spearman, the new board president, said she missed the closed-door meeting at which the board agreed with Cooksey to file the lawsuit, but she indicated that she has questions about it. "There needs to be more discussion," said Spearman, who became board president after the suit was filed. David Kakishiba, who was board president at the time of the lawsuit, declined to comment on why the board voted to file it in the first place.

Clearly, the district should drop the litigation. A public agency has no business going to court and spending precious taxpayer funds meant for educating kids when there's evidence that its own lawyer harbored a serious personal grudge. Moreover, the case against Bryant and Brown appears weak — much weaker, in fact, than the law firm's countersuit against the district.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the last name of Vintage Foster, spokesman for the Bryant and Brown law firm.

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