Hall invoices district for $127K in legal fees

Over her last few months in office, former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall accumulated $127,000 in legal fees related to the state's investigation into test tampering. Now, taxpayers are paying the bill.

Hall's contract requires APS to pay legal fees for any "demands, claims, suits, actions and legal proceedings" brought against her as superintendent, excluding criminal charges or action. The legal fees, invoiced through Jones Day, an Atlanta firm that specializes in corporate criminal investigations, were made from March to May 31.

A copy of the 23-page invoice obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows attorneys billed for everything from reviewing news articles about APS to preparing Hall for an in-depth interview with state investigators appointed by then Gov. Sonny Perdue. Their report, released in July after Hall left office, found that Hall knew or should have known about cheating, an accusation she denies. It's now up to local district attorneys to decide whether criminal charges are warranted against Hall or others.

The district would not comment on whether it will challenge the payment of Hall’s legal fees. It is not unusual for districts to cover the legal costs of superintendents and other employees in non-criminal cases. Similar language appears in the contract of current superintendent Erroll Davis.

Board president Brenda Muhammad said the district would have to weigh the cost of the legal fees against the cost of challenging them.

Documents show APS had already paid attorneys $53,000 on Hall's behalf and the outstanding $74,000 was being processed.

"The key to me is will it cost us more than $127,000 to fight it and is it worth it?" Muhammad said. "We’re already spending taxpayer money with so many other things. Do we take on something else here, when it is not clear we have a clear win?"

The invoices provide a behind-the-scenes snapshot of the work lawyers did on Hall’s behalf in recent months. In some months, up to six employees billed hours for the case. They brushed up on education policy and held meetings to strategize on how to approach the case.

Investigators ultimately found that almost 200 educators were linked to cheating on standardized tests. Top school officials were also accused of destroying or altering complaints about misconduct, trying to hinder the investigation and lying to investigators when asked about their involvement. Several educators implicated in the report have retired or resigned, but others are on paid leave, awaiting a due process hearing required by law.

The district is spending almost $1 million a month to keep the employees on paid leave. That figure does not include legal expenses the district is expected to incur as it will soon begin the process required to fire them.

Muhammad said the district would "absolutely not" pay any additional legal fees incurred by Hall related to the testing investigation.

Hall's lawyer, Rick Deane, who is co-chair of his firm's corporate criminal investigations practice, has said in past interviews that Hall "most definitely did not know of any widespread cheating" on standardized tests. He echoed those comments when contacted earlier this week. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Hall has apologized and accepted some responsibility for scandal.

"To the extent that I failed to take measures that would have prevented what the investigators have disclosed, I am accountable, as head of the school system, for failing to act accordingly, " Hall wrote in a op-ed published last month in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Rhoda Spence, a mother of two APS students, has been watching the continuing fallout from the cheating scandal and the mounting financial commitments the district is having to make as a result.

“I’m sorry this happened," Spence said. "I just want the focus to be back on the children.”