A Witch Hunt at the Oakland Schools 

An internal probe appears to wrongly target a respected official.

Tim White has long been one of the most respected employees in the Oakland Unified School District. As head of the facilities division for the past seven years, he turned around one of the district's most troubled departments and successfully completed dozens of multimillion-dollar school remodeling projects. So it was a surprise, then, that the district's top lawyer recently launched an internal probe of White and convinced the interim superintendent that he should be fired. It turns out, however, that the investigation appears to have been deeply flawed.

Interviews and documents raise serious concerns about the inquiry led by district Acting General Counsel Deborah Cooksey. Her investigation originally focused on whether an Oakland law firm had overbilled the city's school system, but sources say it then expanded to include false accusations against White. In addition, the newly disclosed information raises questions as to whether Cooksey herself should be disciplined for leading the district on a path to where it nearly terminated one of its most admired employees. And disciplining Cooksey shouldn't be that hard to do, since it doesn't appear that she has a valid contract.

Cooksey launched her probe in September after school board member Noel Gallo repeatedly raised questions about a contract between the district and the law firm Bryant and Brown. Cooksey then began looking at the firm's invoices and concluded that it had overbilled Oakland schools and had engaged in possible legal malpractice. In a letter made public last month, she claimed that Bryant and Brown, which had been hired by the district to help oversee facilities projects, owed Oakland public schools nearly $800,000 — an allegation the law firm's outside attorney says is bogus.

At the same time, Cooksey began examining whether White bore any responsibility for the law firm's alleged wrongdoing, because he had managed the contract with Bryant and Brown. According to three sources familiar with the investigation, Cooksey ultimately determined that White had violated district policies and recommended to interim Superintendent Roberta Mayor that he be terminated.

White told Full Disclosure he did not want to talk about the investigation. But it was clear he was disappointed that top district officials assumed he was guilty despite his spotless tenure with the district. "I love what I do; I love Oakland," he said. "But I felt bad that people wouldn't come out and say, 'This doesn't sound like Tim.'"

Cooksey's probe, particularly her inquiry into White, appears to have been mishandled from the beginning. For starters, the idea that White would be under investigation at all seems incredible. Before coming to Oakland, he had turned around the facilities department of the troubled Compton school district in Los Angeles, and helped Compton's then state administrator Randy Ward lead the district out of state receivership. Before White took over Compton's facilities, its dilapidated buildings and leaky roofs were a statewide embarrassment. "He has a very strong work ethic," said Javetta Robinson, the former chief financial officer of both Compton and Oakland school districts and current CFO of Berkeley public schools. "He's very ethical, a very hard worker."

White also was employed for a time by the state's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which audits troubled school districts around the state, including both Compton and Oakland. In fact, former Oakland schools Superintendent Dennis Chaconas once told Full Disclosure that he hired White to take over Oakland's facilities department in 2001 based on recommendations from Ward and former FCMAT chief Tom Henry.

During the past seven years, Oakland's school facilities have gone from being a disgrace to respectable under White. He also led the facilities department out of state control. Over the past half decade, FCMAT has given his department increasingly good reviews and in March of this year, state Superintendent Jack O'Connell returned facilities to local control because of the progress it had made.

So why would Cooksey go after White? Cooksey declined to comment for this story. But according to three sources familiar with the situation, she was upset after she took over in July 2007 from the district's outgoing General Counsel Roy Combs because she felt that she — and not White — should manage the Bryant and Brown legal contract. White had managed attorneys hired to assist the facilities department since his arrival. The sources also said that over time Cooksey developed a dislike of Bryant and Brown's senior partner Meredith Brown. "They've been in a pissing contest for some time," said one of the sources.

By mid-October of this year, Cooksey concluded that White had improperly extended an $847,000 contract with Bryant and Brown without approval from the district's state administrator, according to four sources familiar with the situation. If the allegation were true, then White not only would have been in violation of district policies, but likely also state law. Cooksey then recommended to interim Superintendent Mayor that White be dismissed, the sources said. Mayor agreed with Cooksey's recommendation and so they approached White, the sources said, and offered him four months severance pay if he would leave the district. But White refused and adamantly maintained that he did nothing wrong, the sources said.

Then two weeks ago, Mayor came to White and told him he would be gone within a matter of days, two of the sources said. But Mayor quickly changed her mind when White proved to her that Cooksey's investigation had been far from thorough. White downloaded from the district's own web site the official minutes from the August 29, 2007 school board meeting that showed that State Administrator Kim Statham had approved Bryant and Brown's $847,000 contract. After seeing the document, Mayor called off White's planned termination. "Given that the contract was openly available to the public and easily accessible, I believe it should have been discovered in the preliminary stage of any credible investigation," White wrote in an October 24 letter to Mayor.

When contacted last week, Mayor's spokesman Troy Flint said she would be willing to be interviewed, but added that she might "not answer" all of Full Disclosure's questions, because of legal and personnel confidentiality issues. However, she then did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

So if Cooksey's conclusions about White were wrong, what about her probe of Bryant and Brown? In an October 9 letter to the law firm, Cooksey made several allegations, including that the firm had overbilled the district by about $51,000 and botched a legal case that cost Oakland public schools $722,000.

But Zach Wasserman, a prominent Oakland attorney hired by Bryant and Brown to defend the firm against Cooksey's charges, denied that his clients had done anything wrong. He maintained that Bryant and Brown had not messed up the legal case in question and said that an independent investigation would exonerate the firm. "If an independent person comes in and looks at the files, I think this can be resolved," he said.

Wasserman did acknowledge that Bryant and Brown had double-billed the district in the amount of about $22,000, of which the firm has already returned $10,000 and promises to repay the rest by the end of November. He blamed the overbilling on a mistake made when the firm implemented a new computer system. As for the other $29,000 that Cooksey claims was overbilled, Wasserman said the firm doesn't know what she is talking about because she had not provided documentation to back up her assertion.

Meanwhile, Wasserman's firm has raised serious questions as to whether Cooksey should even have been allowed to conduct the investigation. Cooksey does not appear to have a valid contract to be the district's acting general counsel. An October 1 letter from Wasserman's firm notes that former state Administrator Statham had hired Cooksey in July 2007 on a temporary six-month contract that expired December 31, 2007. The letter further says that there is no record of the district having officially extended Cooksey's contract or given her a new one.

In a response letter dated October 6, school board president David Kakishiba said that the board had appointed Cooksey to be the board's official lawyer in January 2008, thereby making her the acting general counsel for the school district. However, that appointment appears to have been invalid. The school board did not regain the power to hire or fire district employees until March 2008 when state Superintendent O'Connell returned personnel management authority to local control. Until then, only State Administrator Vince Matthews had the power to extend Cooksey's contract or give her a new one, and according to Wasserman, there is no evidence that he ever did.

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