DeKalb County schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis told authorities in 2008 that school officials had uncovered a pattern in which those close to now-embattled school official Pat Pope were making money off the school system’s construction program.
“What we are finding out is that anybody that Ms. Pope has ever worked with . . . ,” Lewis told an investigator, “in some form or fashion, they are architects now for the system, they are contractors doing work for the system, they are with management firms doing work for the system.”
Pat Pope has declined to talk to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the investigation. She formerly headed the school’s construction program, but was removed from that post and given special projects while the criminal probe continues.
Her attorney, Manny Arora, called Lewis’ allegations about Pope “self-serving” and said they are without merit. “These slanderous comments about Ms. Pope were made by Dr. Lewis to try and deflect any alleged impropriety on his part, which was the basis for his interview with the DA’s office,” Arora said Tuesday in a written statement.
The District Attorney’s Office had called Lewis in to answer questions about the superintendent’s purchase of a school-district vehicle and gas purchases on his district credit card. Prosecutors say they are still looking into those matters.
But, midway through the interview, Lewis switched the subject to Pope.
He described losing trust in his then-chief operating officer, whom he hired to clean up a construction program saddled with delays and cost overruns.
“I just feel like Ms. Pope gives you half truths,” Lewis said. “And now I see that this is a pattern of behavior.”
The DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office is investigating whether Pope broke the law by allegedly steering contracts to her husband Tony Pope’s architecture firm and two other construction companies where she has connections. Investigators won’t discuss the case.
Lewis has declined interview requests from the AJC.
The newspaper first reported portions of Lewis’ interview in a Jan. 24 article about the Popes’ involvement in the Columbia High School project, one of six school construction projects that are under investigation by the District Attorney’s Office. The AJC obtained the taped interview through an Open Records Act request.
Lewis told the investigator that Tony Pope worked on two school projects that came after the Columbia project despite being told that he couldn’t. The two projects were Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy and Mountain Industrial Center.
Tony Pope told the AJC in an earlier interview that he and his wife have done nothing wrong. He declined to comment further.
As previously reported by the AJC, Tony Pope was hired as a subcontractor by the builders who worked on the McNair and Mountain Industrial projects.
In Lewis’ interview, conducted on Nov. 26, 2008, the superintendent said he had just learned the previous day that Tony Pope worked on the McNair project.
“Now, Ms. Pope didn’t tell me that her husband had been working for 14 months or so as a consultant. And, while technically it’s not against the law, it’s a conflict of interest and it doesn’t look good to the public.”
On the McNair project, Tony Pope worked for the builder, David Moody, who got the $12 million contract to build the school.
Lewis described Moody as “one of Ms. Pope’s good friends” in his interview.
Moody has declined to comment on his relationship with the Popes or his projects that are under investigation. Through a spokeswoman, he has said he is cooperating with the investigation.
When he heard about Tony Pope’s work on the project, Lewis said he called the primary architect, Vernell Barnes, to find out the extent of Pope’s involvement.
Lewis said Barnes told him that Tony Pope worked as a consultant for Moody for all but two months of the project.
Tony Pope previously told the AJC that Moody asked for his help because Barnes got behind on his work. Pope compared the arrangement to him working as a “temp service” and estimated that his company earned $160,000.
When asked for records that would show the scope of Pope’s involvement and how much he made on the project, Moody referred the AJC to the DA’s Office, saying it had all his records. The DA’s office will not comment on the probe or release any records related to it.
Lewis also gave the investigator an account of a conversation he had with Pope regarding the Mountain Industrial Center project.
Around late summer 2008, Lewis said Pope called him at home to ask if her husband could be a subcontractor for the project’s builder.
Lewis said he reminded Pope of their decision to not let Tony Pope work on school projects.
“ ‘But it’s not against the law,’ ” Lewis said Pat Pope replied.
“Pat, my answer is no,” Lewis said, according to the interview.
Lewis also said a school district attorney put his opinion on the matter in writing, saying “that technically it’s not a violation of the law, but it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Tony Pope ended up working as the architect for Mountain Industrial Center through the project’s contractor, Nix-Fowler Constructors. Officials with the company declined to comment. The company does not appear to be involved in the investigation.
Lewis said in a written statement Tuesday that he was not aware of Tony Pope’s involvement when the project started.
Nix-Fowler’s contract with the school system, obtained by the AJC, clearly lists Tony Pope’s company as one of its subcontractor architects.
And Crawford Lewis’ signature is on the $17.6 million contract, dated May 2008 — six months before his interview with the DA’s Office.
“I wish I had caught it, but I did not,” Lewis wrote in his statement.
During his interview, Lewis said several different school system attorneys “all believe that we have enough, as I speak to you today, to let Ms. Pope go.”
Instead of parting ways with Pope, Lewis renewed her contract in February, giving her a salary of nearly $200,000.
Lewis justified extending her contract in his statement.“We were concerned that not renewing her contract at that time might jeopardize the progress of our construction program,” he wrote.
Arora said that Lewis’ actions spoke louder than words.
“If Dr. Lewis had proof to substantiate his comments about Ms. Pope, then he would not have renewed Ms. Pope’s contract with Dekalb County in February 2009. Further, all construction contracts are solely approved by Dr. Lewis who then forwards them to the board for a final vote.”
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