Judge allows “bad act” testimony in APS test-cheating case

A Fulton County judge on Friday ruled that at least six educators and a parent can testify for the prosecution about alleged “prior bad acts” committed by former Atlanta Public Schools Executive Director Tamara Cotman at her upcoming trial.

Cotman is to stand trial later this month on a charge of trying to influence a witness. Jury selection begins Aug. 19 and testimony begins a week later.

Cotman is accused of telling 12 principals in December 2010 to write a “go to hell” memo to GBI agents who were investigating test cheating at those principals’ schools. Over several months ending in February 2011, Cotman engaged in a “campaign of harassment” against former Scott Elementary School principal Jimmye Hawkins, who attended the so-called “go to hell” meeting, Fulton County prosecutors allege in a recent court filing.

During a hearing on Friday, nine witnesses called to the stand by prosecutors testified that Cotman retaliated against them when they voiced concerns over test cheating and other matters. Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said he would allow seven to testify at the upcoming trial and reserved making a decision on the other two potential witnesses.

Fulton prosecutor Christopher Quinn had told Baxter that the witnesses will help prosecutors show Cotman had a fear and intimidation management style, helping prove motive at the upcoming trial. When someone voiced a complaint to Cotman, she fired, demoted, transferred or retaliated against that person, he said. “She makes their life a living hell.”

Cotman’s lawyer, Benjamin Davis, opposed the introduction of the witness testimony. He described most of the witnesses as “disgruntled former employees.”

David has said Cotman is innocent of the charge against her and predicted she will be acquitted at trial.

Cotman also remains a defendant in the sweeping indictment that accuses her and 34 other former APS educators and officials of engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to inflate test scores. That indictment also accused Cotman of influencing a witness.

Cotman’s attorney had previously challenged the influencing a witness charge, saying it should be dismissed because it was too vague. In June, Fulton prosecutors obtained a new indictment, with a single influencing a witness charge that provided more specifics. It alleges that Cotman threatened Hawkins, the former Scott Elementary principal, by placing her in fear of retaliation and demotion if she cooperated with any investigation.

Davis quickly filed a motion for a speedy trial on the new indictment, which meant that if the influencing a witness charge were not tried by the end of August it would have to be dismissed.

After hearing all the testimony on Friday, Baxter said that while sitting on the bench he thinks of Las Vegas and where people go gambling.

“Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose,” Baxter said at the close of the hearing, not addressing either party in particular. “There needs to be some soul searching.”