By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Board of Education member and lawyer Michael King faces the possibility of losing his seat for representing a former Mt. Zion High School teacher in a lawsuit against the school system while sitting on the board that governs it.
In its first official act, the school board's ethics commission unanimously recommended King's removal Wednesday after hearing testimony from one of the school system's supplemental attorneys, and board Chairwoman Alieka Anderson.
The commission decided King's action in representing a client in a lawsuit against the school board - a body that includes himself - was too serious an ethics violation to be handled lightly, said its legal counsel, Winston Denmark.
"The evidence overwhelmingly showed there was a violation here," Denmark said. "The documents speak for themselves. He was counseling her [the teacher] on the very day he was sworn into office."
Anderson said the final decision on King's removal will be made by the school board, either at the Feb. 23 board work session, or during a called meeting.
In 2006, King began representing former Mt. Zion High School teacher Lakeetra Mason in a wrongful termination suit. He defeated Milton Mack in the school board's District 4 special election runoff in August of last year.
The suit was thrown out by a U.S. District Court judge on Sept. 30. King was censured by his colleagues a few days earlier because of his involvement in the case. The issue was then sent to the ethics commission in November as a procedural move after the censure was issued, Anderson said.
Mason filed an appeal Oct. 23 on her own behalf. Lawyer Steve Fincher told the commission Wednesday King is still listed as her attorney of record. Fincher's law firm provides supplemental legal work for the school system, and was assigned to represent the district in the wrongful termination case in September.
King has repeatedly said he advised Mason on Aug. 25, the day he took office, that he could no longer actively represent her in the case because of the conflict of interest. But, he also repeatedly said he could not walk away from Mason because she did not have another attorney to represent her.
King did not attend Wednesday's ethics hearing. When reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, he said he was representing a client in Cobb County.
King said he was not surprised by the commission's recommendation, and plans to appeal it.
The commission has five days to notify King of its recommendation by certified letter. He then has 15 days to file an appeal with school board and the commission. The school board would then have 30 days to accept or modify the commission's recommendation. If it is accepted, King would have 10 days to appeal his removal to Clayton County Superior Court.
King contends the commission based its recommendation on an old school board ethics policy that was replaced when House Bill 1302, which created the commission, was signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue last year.
"They went with an ethics policy which had been repealed when House Bill 1302 was passed," King said. "They did not have any subject matter jurisdiction in this case."
However, section 2a, item 4, of House Bill 1302 states board members cannot represent people in actions against the school system.
King also contends Superintendent John Thompson, and school system General Counsel Julie Lewis, are using the ethics case to distract the board from its search for a new superintendent, and its efforts to regain the school system's accreditation. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) issued nine mandates a year ago for improving the school system.
The district lost its accreditation last August because it had only met one of those mandates.
King subpoenaed Thompson and Lewis to appear for questioning in Wednesday's hearing, although they did not have to speak to the commission because King was not there.
"Mandate No. 9 is the national search for a superintendent," King said in a telephone interview. "I think he [Thompson] assumed his contract would be renewed by the board, so I think he's unhappy that we chose to do a national search instead."
Lewis, in a written statement on behalf of herself and Thompson, said the hearing had nothing to do with the superintendent search because King was censured in September of last year, and Anderson sent the formal complaint to the commission in November.
The board did not vote to conduct a national superintendent search until January of this year.
Lewis also pointed to another one of the SACS mandates, which requires the board to develop, and follow, tougher ethics guidelines. "With regards to the issue of SACS accreditation," Lewis said in her statement, "the actions taken by the board and the ethics commission are in keeping with the mandates, particularly as they pertain to the board policing itself and enacting to and committing to an ethics policy."
If the school board accepts the commission's recommendation, it would not be the first time the Clayton County Board of Education has removed one of its members. In March 2008, the board removed Norreese Haynes after a Clayton County Police investigation determined he did not live in the county.
Since then, the board's entire membership has changed.