Georgia’s Office of Inspector General is investigating whether contracting laws were broken when Eric Thomas led the Chief Turnaround Office. FILE PHOTO

Letter: State investigating former school “turnaround” chief

The former chief of Georgia’s effort to help struggling schools mismanaged his office and interfered in contracting decisions, according to a letter from the state Office of Inspector General.

Eric Thomas has already resigned, leaving his job as Chief Turnaround Officer in mid-January.

After leaving the job, he said politics was behind a Department of Education internal investigation that triggered the new inspector general’s review. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution then that there was a “hostile” relationship between his office and that of state school Superintendent Richard Woods, who oversees the education department. He questioned whether, under those circumstances, he could get fair treatment from the department.

Now, the inspector general is saying in a letter that Thomas “inappropriately interfered” with a contractor selection process, telling staff to choose specific vendors to help his office with its school improvement work. That’s based on the inspector general’s review of the education department’s 64-page audit and supporting documents.

“Overall, it appears that the Chief Turnaround Office was mismanaged and that policies and procedures in place were routinely ignored by Dr. Thomas,” says the letter, which was signed by Inspector General Deborah Wallace on Jan. 28 and addressed to state Board of Education Chairman Scott Sweeney.

Thomas also didn’t reimburse staff for travel expenses, says the letter, which was obtained by Channel 2 Action News and shared with the AJC.

Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Frick had no comment Monday, saying she had not seen the letter. Sweeney did not respond to a request for comment, but Wallace confirmed she’d sent the letter to him. “We have an open criminal investigation,” she said, adding that her agency is working with the attorney general’s office.

Thomas responded in writing, saying in an email that he was confident the inspector general would find his office had followed the rules. He also said he still had not seen the education department’s investigation that led to the inspector general’s involvement. Previously, he said he had not been interviewed for that audit.

The audit was reportedly triggered by a whistleblower complaint that included allegations of discrimination, conflict of interest and misuse of funds.

The inspector general isn’t investigating the personnel allegations (the letter refers to “racially based” harassment, threats and discrimination) but is opening an investigation to determine whether laws were broken “due to Thomas’ actions to override internal controls” around hiring contractors. Wallace’s letter advised DOE to reimburse the employees for their travel and “take swift, prompt employment action regarding Dr. Thomas.”

Though the state school board accepted Thomas’ resignation letter on Jan. 17, the letter said Thomas’ departure was effective May 30. However, the board placed him on administrative leave and immediately named an interim successor. The successor, an education department administrator, is keeping her old job and the pay that came with it while Thomas collects his pay ($235,000 a year when he started in late 2017) until his resignation is complete.

That could be changing, though. Late Monday, after the DOE was queried about the new inspector general letter, the school board called a meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss and consider an unstated personnel matter.

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