Beverly Hall, then the Atlanta schools superintendent, faces reporters after a 2011 school board meeting that focused on test-cheating allegations. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: CURTIS COMPTON/Curtis Compton
Photo: CURTIS COMPTON/Curtis Compton

FBI missed cheating scandal but declared Beverly Hall a ‘patriot’

In the fall of 2009, the FBI dispatched agents in seven cities on an urgent investigation. The White House needed everything they could dig up on Beverly Hall, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.

Six weeks later, the agents reported that Hall was patriotic, had no ties to terrorists or foreign agents, and was known to wear “appropriate clothing.”

The agents missed a big red flag, however: the scandal beginning to engulf Hall over cheating on standardized achievement tests.

The FBI investigated Hall as part of a routine, although expedited, vetting process before President Barack Obama named her to an advisory position with the U.S. Department of Education. Before seeking Senate confirmation, White House officials wanted to make sure no embarrassing details lurked in the shadows.

Investigators found none, according to a 235-page report the FBI prepared for the White House, obtained recently by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Freedom of Information Act.

The report shows that agents interviewed Hall’s top aides, Atlanta business leaders, and members of committees she had served on, among others. They checked her work history and her credit. They made sure she was a U.S. citizen.

But they apparently skipped the most basic inquiry: a Google search.

Hall had boasted of what she called the school district’s “remarkable turnaround” during her tenure, and she had received much acclaim as its architect. Earlier in 2009, she had been named the national Superintendent of the Year –an award that, for public-school administrators, carries the magnitude of an Oscar or a Nobel.

But by November 2009, when the FBI background investigation began, the Journal-Constitution had published four major stories revealing irregularities in Atlanta’s scores on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. These and later reports of systematic cheating undercut Hall’s narrative of dramatic improvement in the schools.

Hall’s dismissive attitude toward the reports incensed then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. “Any reasonable person,” he said in July 2009, clearly referring to Hall, could see the irregularities.

None of this made its way into the FBI’s report, delivered to the White House on Dec. 22, 2009.

Instead, agents recounted interviews in which Hall’s associates – some of whom worked for her – described her as “politically savvy,” a “visionary,” “the ultimate leader.”

“Some resent the changes she has made,” an unidentified school district official told the FBI. “(The) community as a whole respects her transformation of this organization.”

“Dr. Hall enjoys an A-plus reputation in Atlanta,” Milton Little, president of the United Way of Greater Atlanta, was quoted as saying. Hall, he said, “led an astonishing turnaround.”

Others assured agents that Hall, a naturalized citizen born in Jamaica, was “very patriotic” and “extremely loyal” to the United States. One mentioned that she dressed appropriately, and Herb Garrett, then the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, described Hall as a “classy lady.”

Garrett said last week he didn’t recall his interview with the FBI. Little did not respond to a request for comment.

Agents conducted interviews and examined records in every city where Hall had worked or lived or had served on boards of non-profit organizations.

But much of the report reflects the FBI’s historical obsession with the peccadilloes of its investigative subjects.

One particularly old-school agent reported finding no “disgraceful conduct” or “sexual perversion.”

The agent said Hall had not committed “sabotage, espionage, treason, terrorism or sedition” and had no “sympathetic association with a saboteur, spy, traitor, seditionist, anarchist, terrorist or revolutionist.”

Finally, the agent wrote, Hall had no connections to any “secret agent” of a foreign government.

Following the clean background check, Obama nominated Hall in May 2010 for the National Board for Education Sciences, which advises federal officials on education research. The Senate soon confirmed other appointees to the panel. But as the cheating scandal grew, lawmakers sat on Hall’s nomination. In December 2010, at the end of the congressional session, the Senate returned the nomination to the president. Hall received no other presidential appointments.

The rest of the story is well known in Atlanta. In 2013, a Fulton County grand jury indicted Hall and 34 other educators on racketeering charges related to the cheating scandal. Most pleaded guilty, and a jury convicted seven defendants two years ago.

Hall, though, died of cancer in 2015 at age 68 without standing trial – and without publicly defending herself.

In 2009, in a questionnaire for the White House, Hall had encountered a pointed question: “Is there anything in your personal life that could be used by someone to coerce or blackmail you or is there anything in your life that could cause an embarrassment to you or the president if publicly known?”

Above her signature attesting the truthfulness of her answer, Hall checked the second box: “No.”

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