Former DeKalb school chief pleads guilty to misdemeanor

The guilty plea of former DeKalb County school Superintendent Crawford Lewis Wednesday means he won’t serve decades in prison as a result of a corruption case involving taxpayer dollars. But it left many wondering what prosecutors will get in exchange now that he has agreed to testify against his former co-defendants.

Lewis, who was fired by the school board around the time of his indictment in 2010, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of a law enforcement officer, admitting he interfered with an investigation into district construction contracts.

He has agreed to testify against the district’s one-time chief operating officer, Pat Reid, and her ex-husband, architect Tony Pope, prosecutors said. All three were indicted in an alleged conspiracy that supposedly misused taxpayer dollars earmarked for new schools.

“I’m really disappointed,” said Faye Andresen, who volunteered on a panel that monitored school construction projects when Lewis was superintendent. Lewis, she said, apppeared to be part of a culture of patronage among county officials. Seeing Lewis on trial would have been “cathartic,” she said.

Assistant District Attorney Lawanda Hodges would not say what sentence prosecutors would recommend for Lewis, but she said the maximum punishment would be 12 months in jail.

Lewis can withdraw his plea if Judge Cynthia Becker does not accept the punishment that defense attorneys negotiated with prosecutors.

Jury selection in the case against Reid and Pope begins Oct. 28. They are accused of racketeering and theft by taking.

Reid’s lawyer, Tony Axam, complained that the defense needed time to regroup, but Becker said she wants to press on, adding that 750 potential jurors had been summoned.

In reaction to Lewis’ plea in court Wednesday, Reid appeared close to tears and Pope closed his eyes and put a finger to his lips.

Just last Friday prosecutors and defense attorneys had told Becker that plea offers had been made but were not accepted.

Lewis was looking at 65 years in prison if he had been convicted of all counts — one racketeering charge and three counts of theft by taking by a government official. Reid, who faces the same charges, also could get up to 65 years if convicted. Pope, charged with one count of racketeering and another of theft by taking, could get 30 years.

According to investigative records, the case against Reid, and ultimately Lewis and Pope, started when Lewis steered investigators toward her while they were looking at his own acquisition of a school vehicle and gas purchases on his school credit card.

Then, according to court documents, Lewis tried to derail the ensuing investigation. He allegedly tried to convince the district attorney’s office to stop — or at least suspend — its probe, and put up another obstacle by assigning Reid to gather records sought by prosecutors for the case.

One of Lewis’ concerns, according to records, was that a criminal case against Reid would impact civil lawsuits filed against the school district in 2007.

Heery International Inc., a member of a joint venture that had been managing school construction projects until it was fired, sued the district for a half million dollars in unpaid fees. The district countered with its own suit accusing the contractors of mismanagement and billing fraud. Heery then brought more claims tied to the corruption case, and potential damages ballooned into tens of millions of dollars. That dispute is ongoing.

Lewis’ plea helps prosecutors, who faced a setback Tuesday when Becker rejected their motion to sever the case against him from the other two. The issue prosecutors were facing was they could not use at trial anything Lewis said to investigators because he could not be cross-examined unless he testified on his own behalf.

The plea eliminates that problem.

Lewis softly answered Hodges’ questions during the plea process.

“Are you in fact guilty?” Hodges asked.

“Yes,” Lewis responded.

Since Lewis, Pope and Reid were first indicted, the indictment has been revised twice. The third version, returned July 18, involved fewer charges and two school construction projects instead of the four in the first two versions.

Prosecutors said Reid, who had complete control over the school district’s construction, steered tens of millions of dollars in projects at Columbia High School and the McNair Cluster Elementary School to Pope’s firm, businesses he was affiliated with, and to her friends. Prosecutors said Reid abused her authority over school construction to manipulate scores on contract bids so her then-husband would win business.

A part of the alleged conspiracy is that she also purportedly pressured vendors for tickets to sporting events and shows.

Reid also is charged with theft by taking because prosecutors allege she bought a county-owned car for a cut-rate price after tax dollars were used for repairs and upgrades.

According to the indictments, Lewis’ role in the alleged racketeering was more peripheral. Reid allegedly coordinated the bidding and contracts and Lewis simply signed off on them.

Eugene Walker, who was on the school board during Lewis’ tenure, said he was surprised Lewis pleaded to anything.

“I didn’t ever think that he stole money,” Walker said, adding that he did think Lewis “was way over his head” in a running a school system as big as DeKalb, Georgia’s third largest.

Nancy Jester, another former board member, who served after Lewis’ ouster, said technically the case only cost the district the $100,000 DeKalb gave Lewis to defend himself against the charges.

But the damage goes far deeper, in terms of trust and morale, she said. DeKalb has had three superintendents since Lewis. The district dug itself into a financial deficit, nearly lost its accreditation, and drew the wrath of Gov. Nathan Deal, who unseated Jester, Walker and four other board members.

Those misfortunes weren’t directly caused by the indictment, Jester said, but it was “certainly a beginning point.” She said she hopes prosecutors get valuable testimony from Lewis in exchange for the misdemeanor plea.

“It seems like small punishment compared with all the damage done to DeKalb,” she said.