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Legislator blurs public, private life in APS contract talks

State Rep. Mike Glanton touts legislative influence in effort to save troubled contract for his employer. Lawmaker tells AJC he did nothing wrong.

A state lawmaker with a $1.1 million business contract on the line may have violated ethical standards when he used his elected office as a bargaining chip while negotiating a renewal of the contract with Atlanta Public Schools.

In an email sent April 15, state Rep. Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro, attempted to get a meeting with APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to discuss a contract between the district and teacher recruiting firm Global Teachers Research and Resources. Glanton is Global’s chief operating officer and is responsible for negotiating contracts with school districts across Georgia and in other states. But it was his legislative resume that he emphasized to the district’s top official.

“My purpose for meeting with you is three-fold,” Glanton wrote. “First, to make an introduction, second, to discuss our (APS/Global) partnership, and thirdly to assess what potential legislative goals you might have now or in the future as it relates to education in Georgia.”

Glanton also listed his assignments to the House Education Committee and the House Appropriation Committee’s Education Subcommittee, which helps set the state budget for public education. He also mentioned his appointments to a Common Core study committee and Gov. Nathan Deal’s education reform commission.

Finally, he said he “would be involved in conversations” regarding the proposed “Opportunity School District,” a new plan to remove struggling schools from their home districts and place them under state control.

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“I would appreciate a meeting with you at your earliest convenience,” he wrote.

A few weeks earlier, APS had sent Glanton a letter informing him that the company’s $1.1 million contract with the district would not be renewed in the coming school year. For years, the district contracted with the Clayton County firm for teachers from foreign countries to fill “critical needs” positions.

Carstarphen never met with Glanton, but the email did get her attention. “Do you know this contract?” she asked Pamela Hall, the district’s human resources director, in an email sent a few hours later. Hall sent back her frank assessment.

“He is trying to use his influence as a legislator to convince us to keep the contract,” she wrote.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution received the email as part of an open records request the AJC made while trying to find out why the district decided to end its relationship with Global. Glanton would not be interviewed about it, but in an email reply to questions from the AJC he defended his email as an innocent attempt to kill two birds with a single stone.

“Generally, when I meet with anyone pertaining to any subject, whether personal, private or professional, laws and policy are discussed for various reasons,” he said. “I give legislative updates routinely and solicit input from individuals around the state on matters coming before the General Assembly.”

Glanton said he knew he likely would be able to meet with the superintendent only once and was taking the opportunity to discuss both his public and private business. He said he does not believe that presents a conflict of interest.

“I have a job and responsibilities whether legislative or domestic,” he said.

William Perry, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said the overt manner in which Glanton conflated his public and private roles represents “a very troublesome abuse of legislative authority.”

“He doesn’t come right out and make a threat, but he walks right up to the line, as close as you can get without stepping over it,” he said. “He gets very specific over some really important aspects of this superintendent’s job.”

“He really piles it on,” Perry said.

In his email response to the AJC, Glanton also claimed that he has since met with Hall on two occasions and believes she would retract her statement that he was using his office to influence contract negotiations.

“Her statement was probably based on her previous experiences with politicians and an assumption made prior to meeting me,” he wrote.

APS spokeswoman Jill Strickland Luse said Hall and Glanton did meet after the April 15 email. Strickland Luse did not retract Hall’s take on the email, but of the subsequent meeting she said, “Rep. Glanton said nothing that would indicate he was trying to use his position to influence her in any way.”

Overtures in Henry County

There is evidence that Glanton has used his elected position as a door opener before. An effort last year to set up a meeting with the superintendent of the Henry County Schools to discuss a contract began this way: “My name is Mike Glanton. I currently serve in the Georgia House of Representatives, and as Chief Operating Office for Global Teachers Research and Resources, Inc.”

Glanton is able to pile it on because his legislative positions dovetail so perfectly with his private interests. That’s by design.

In the General Assembly, bankers sit on banking committees, insurance agents serve on insurance committees, and farmers make policy on agriculture committees. Lawmakers defend the appointments as the cost of a part-time Legislature — all members have private careers and leveraging their personal experience and knowledge makes sense, they say.

But lawmakers are not supposed to use their governmental positions to further their private interests. In fact, it’s a felony if they do.

State law defines bribery by a public official, in part, as soliciting “directly or indirectly” anything of value “by inducing the reasonable belief that the giving of the thing will influence his or her performance or failure to perform any official action.”

Were Glanton to face criminal charges, they likely would come from Attorney General Sam Olens, who has prosecuting public corruption charges among his duties. However, Olens likely would wait for the Legislature to act first.

The House Ethics Committee is charged with investigating alleged ethics complaints against representatives. Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, declined to comment on the Glanton email — and how the APS official interpreted it — because he could be called to rule on discipline in the case.

House ethics rules forbid members from committing “any felony or crime involving moral turpitude” related to their office. The Ethics Committee can hand out discipline ranging from a public reprimand and fine to expulsion from office.

Any Georgia citizen can file a complaint with the committee, but no complaint has been filed yet against Glanton.

Federal law prohibits bribery of a public official, too, but prosecution of the offense is complicated, said Paul B. Murphy, a lawyer with King & Spalding and a former federal prosecutor.

“Prosecutors have to carefully distinguish conduct that may constitute only an ethical violation from conduct that crosses the line and constitutes a criminal violation,” he said. “Whether conduct rises to the level of a crime hinges on the individual’s state of mind and, when it comes to public corruption cases, ordinarily being able to prove that the person solicited or received a bribe, kickback or gratuity in connection with some official action.”

Future uncertain for teachers, Glanton

The AJC has reported on Global as part of its investigation into the recruiting of foreign teachers to staff hard-to-fill positions in math, science and special education in Georgia’s public schools. In the past five years, Georgia school districts have spent more than $52 million on contracts with recruiting firms, with most of the business going to Global.

The importing of public school teachers across the nation has led to problems with some teachers claiming they were not properly paid or were required to pay some of their own immigration costs. The AJC found similar complaints among teachers hired by Global.

Global was fined for labor violations in 2011 and is under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Labor as a result of new allegations.

Paddy Sharma, Global’s founder, said she was not aware of Glanton’s email, but she said she did not see a problem.

“I was under the impression — it’s all about education,” she said. “Talking about education is not something wrong.”

The cancellation of the APS contract has unnerved some of the Global teachers. Global’s teachers are in the United States under H-1B visas, which are used to import workers in areas, such as computer science, where industries argue there are not enough domestic workers. Under the terms of the visa, teachers must have a job in a school district to remain in the country.

In an April 13 email, one Global teacher asked Carstarphen to sit down with him and his colleagues to discuss how the group could stay with the district. APS has offered no public assurances that Global teachers will be retained.

“Some of us have served APS since 2007 with utmost dedication and loyalty to our students and the communities we served,” the teacher, a former teacher of the year for his high school, wrote. “We want to continue serving the students we love and care about, and continue to be part of the new vision to make APS a dynamic system that delivers high quality instruction (to) help our students achieve at a much higher level.”

In prepared statements explaining the cancellation of the contract with Global, district officials have said they intend to hire all of their teachers, including foreign workers, directly rather than going through a recruiting firm.

Atlanta’s international teachers are not the only ones with reason to be apprehensive. Last month, DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond said the district intended to rebid its contract for international teachers, including one with Global.

DeKalb spent more than $16 million on contracts for international teachers in the past five years, more than any district in Georgia. Thurmond said the contract had not been rebid in at least a decade.

Glanton’s role with Global may also be tenuous. Sharma announced to teachers last month that negotiations are under-way to sell the company to an undisclosed U.S. buyer.

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