APS should not let lawyers interview witnesses at school, Hall told

Atlanta Public Schools administrators are giving their personal criminal defense attorneys access to school grounds so they can interview potential witnesses, raising "serious witness intimidation concerns," the governor's special investigators have told Superintendent Beverly Hall.

In a letter sent Thursday, the investigators told Hall to tell her administrators to stop allowing their defense attorneys to interview teachers and instructors on school property, on school time and at the direction of school principals. This appears to put the school district's stamp of approval on the practice and can let administrators and principals use the power of their office to compel witnesses to cooperate, the investigators said.

The letter was sent to Hall by Gov. Sonny Perdue's special investigators, Mike Bowers, Bob Wilson and Richard Hyde, and was written under the governor's office masthead. In August, Perdue appointed the investigators to determine whether Atlanta school officials falsified scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.

"It's very serious business and we want what could be construed as interference with the investigation to be stopped," Bowers said Friday. "It's not that the defense attorneys don't have a right to talk to anyone they please, but it shouldn't be under those conditions. We're not going to put up with it."

APS spokesman Keith Bromery said the school system is reviewing the letter. It will respond "at the appropriate time to the issues it raises," he said.

The APS test-tampering scandal already has resulted in dozens of GBI agents being dispatched to Atlanta public schools to interview teachers and administrators.

During the ongoing investigation, numerous APS employees have confessed to changing students' test papers, providing answers to students or watching others manipulate tests, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported. The investigators have granted immunity to teachers, so long as they tell the truth, and are using their cooperation to investigate superiors.

On Nov. 30, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard designated Bowers, a former state attorney general, and Wilson, a former DeKalb DA, as special assistant district attorneys. Howard said he may convene a special grand jury and decide whether criminal charges should be brought against APS officials.

In their letter, the investigators singled out Lucious Brown, the principal at Kennedy Middle School, saying Brown allowed his defense lawyer to interview witnesses on school property and during school hours. "We view Mr. Brown's conduct as an abuse of power over the employees he supervises," the letter said.

Brown did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The school district's probe of the CRCT results -- conducted by a "blue ribbon commission" composed of civic and business leaders -- found high numbers of erasures on 2009 test answer sheets at Kennedy Middle School.

The state investigators asked Hall to tell all APS employees that her directive requiring school employees to cooperate with the governor's investigation does not apply to cooperating with defense lawyers who represent school officials. Hall should tell her employees they are free to talk to defense attorneys but are under no obligation to do so, the letter said.

If APS employees choose to speak with a defense lawyer, they should not admit they have received immunity from criminal prosecution in connection with the governor's investigation, the investigators told Hall. "Doing so at this early stage of the investigation could jeopardize the governor's investigation and their safety."

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Steve Sadow said Friday he understands why the investigators do not want potential witnesses to be put in a position at their school where they feel they are required to talk to defense attorneys representing school principals and administrators. But asking Hall to instruct school employees that they should not admit they have received immunity borders on misconduct, he said.

"If you're encouraging prospective prosecution witnesses to potentially lie to defense counsel, that's a problem," Sadow said. "If they've received immunity and are being told to say they don't have it, that's a whole different situation. It's just flat-out wrong."

The special investigators should have asked Hall to tell her employees it is her preference that they not discuss any immunity agreement because it could potentially jeopardize the investigation or their safety, Sadow said. "But she also should be able to say it's their decision to make."