Georgia’s first chief school turnaround officer, Eric Thomas, resigned in January effective May 30, amid an audit ordered by the office of Superintendent Richard Woods, leader of the Georgia Department of Education. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed
Photo: Contributed

Lawsuit: Former school turnaround chief claims investigation was ‘sham’

Georgia’s former shepherd of struggling schools who resigned last month has filed a lawsuit to stop the public release of the investigation that led to his departure.

Eric Thomas accuses the Georgia Department of Education of orchestrating a “sham” audit to retaliate against him as part of a tug of war over control of his former office, created by a 2017 law. His lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court Friday, demands that the education agency withhold its audit from the public to preserve his reputation.

Thomas, who was the state’s first chief turnaround officer under the law pushed by then-Gov. Nathan Deal, contends the audit was initiated after he complained that the education department was failing to collaborate with him as the law required.

The audit is incomplete, the lawsuit says, because Thomas’ response has not yet been reviewed by the Georgia Board of Education, which in January accepted his resignation. Records that are part of an ongoing investigation are not subject to the state open records law. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has requested both the 64-page audit and Thomas’ 35-page response, which his lawsuit says was filed Feb. 12.

Georgia school Superintendent Richard Woods sought control of the school turnaround office. He appointed one of his administrators as interim chief after Eric Thomas resigned amid an audit. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Thomas’ lawsuit says public disclosure of the audit, with its “baseless” claims, would damage his reputation and ability to find a new job. “Without such publication, Dr. Thomas’ skills are extremely marketable in the education field,” the lawsuit says.

Thomas declined to comment.

He is on administrative leave until his resignation takes effect May 30, and still collecting his $239,700 annual salary.

>> RELATED: Georgia’s first school turnaround chief out amid investigation

Meanwhile, he is the target of a criminal investigation.

Georgia’s inspector general said in a Jan. 28 letter to state school board Chairman Scott Sweeney that it concluded after reviewing the audit and supporting documents that Thomas “inappropriately interfered” with a contractor selection process, telling staff to choose specific vendors to help his office with its school improvement work. It said an investigation was being opened to determine whether laws were broken “due to Thomas’ actions to override internal controls” around hiring contractors. Inspector General Deborah Wallace told the AJC at the time that it was a criminal investigation, in collaboration with the state attorney general.

Her letter advised the education agency to “take swift, prompt employment action regarding Dr. Thomas.”

>> RELATED: Letter: State investigating former school ‘turnaround’ chief

The state education board called a Feb. 4 executive session meeting to discuss Thomas, but ended the meeting without formal action.

Sweeney said Monday he would not comment about a personnel matter. State school Superintendent Richard Woods’ office also declined comment.

The lawsuit claims the audit was requested by Woods’ chief of staff for “spurious” reasons. Woods ordered the audit in September, education department spokeswoman Meghan Frick said. Thomas’ lawsuit claims Woods wanted the turnaround chief reporting to him rather than to the school board, as the 2017 law required.

The lawsuit says Woods, the elected official who controls the state education department, appointed an agency administrator as the interim turnaround chief, asserting it was a violation of the law separating the education department and turnaround office. But it was actually the school board that made the appointment, and Frick said Woods did not recommend it.

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