A DeKalb County judge is intervening with a potential conflict of interest that could cost former schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis his lawyer.
Superior Court Judge Cynthia J. Becker will decide Friday if Lewis can keep his lawyer, Mike Brown of Alston & Bird LLP, to represent him at his corruption trial, scheduled for January.
On Thursday, prosecutors asked the judge to dismiss Brown.
Alston & Bird, a firm of about 800 lawyers, also represents DeKalb schools construction manager Barbara Colman's employer. Colman is a witness for the state’s case against Lewis.
A grand jury indicted Lewis, former schools Chief Operating Officer Patricia Reid, Reid’s former husband Tony Pope and her secretary Cointa Moody in May. The four are charged with running a criminal enterprise at the school system. All have pleaded not guilty.
The criminal case centers around conflicts of interest and allegations that Reid, Lewis and Moody funneled construction contracts to Pope’s architecture firm and his friends’ companies. At the time, Reid managed the schools’ multimillion-dollar construction program.
Colman, who works for construction management firm Parsons Commercial Group, assumed Reid's job at the school system and is scheduled to testify at the trial.
“At the end of the day, Mr. Brown has to cross-examine one client in favor of the other,” Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney John Melvin told the judge Thursday. “Parsons is at the entire epicenter of this case and will talk about the inappropriate activity they inherited. ... It’s an inescapable, irreconcilable conflict.”
Brown, who pointed out the potential conflict of interest to prosecutors, said he has never spoken to Colman and doesn’t foresee any problems. He told the judge he has no plans to talk to the attorneys in his firm who represent her or to look at any of their documentation.
“The most important fact is that Dr. Lewis has selected a counsel under his Sixth Amendment right to represent him,” Brown said. “We’ve spent a whole lot of time, looking into thousands and thousands of documents, and done interviews on his behalf.”
Lewis told the judge he doesn’t view it as a conflict and still wants to keep his attorney.
But the judge said she isn’t so sure.
“The bottom line is someone is going to get thrown under the bus," she said. "Dr. Lewis needs to understand he may be the one getting thrown under the bus."
Prosecutors said the firm’s loyalty to Parsons could hurt Lewis’ defense or result in an appeal for a retrial.
“Parsons is a $1 billion company and client that Alston & Bird would zealously try to represent,” Melvin said. “That may be averse to zealously representing Dr. Lewis.”
Lewis and Brown declined to comment to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Colman did not return a phone call Thursday.
On top of the conflict of interest allegations in the school corruption trial, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is looking into allegations of conflicts of interest, nepotism and other ethical violations involving the board and school system. SACS is now reviewing 2,500 pages of documentation the school system submitted to prove it meets the agency’s standards of accreditation.
SACS is scheduled to decide next month if it will launch a full probe of DeKalb schools, the state's third-largest district.
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