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NCLB Outrages

Complaint to state watchdog agency languishes

Lack of response frustrates publisher. It should anger all of us.

By Bridget Gutierrez The Atlanta

The front cover of a brochure for the state inspector general's office proclaims that "YOU Can Make A DIFFERENCE!"

Tell that to Cindy Cupp.

More than a year after Cupp, a retired state Department of Education employee and small-time textbook publisher, filed a complaint with the inspector general, she's wondering whether it made any difference at all.

Cupp recently discovered that the office tasked with rooting out corruption and waste in state agencies never conducted a full investigation of her complaint that Education Department employees illegally blocked sales by her company in doling out millions of dollars for schools to purchase textbooks.

Despite the lack of an investigation, Inspector General James E. Sehorn quietly closed Cupp's case last fall. Then he inexplicably told Department of Education officials they had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

"We found the actions taken by DOE in this issue to be in compliance with both federal and state requirements," Sehorn wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to state Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox.

Ten days ago, Cupp wrote the inspector general's office demanding answers. She's not likely to get any.

Without public notice or explanation, Sehorn, who was the state's first inspector general, left his office in April. He did not respond to requests for an interview, and his successor said she could not explain his letter.

According to documents in the office's evidence file, Sehorn signed off on closing Cupp's case in September, a few days after Deputy Inspector General Phil Walker, who had been assigned the case, learned federal investigators were looking into the matter.

But in the six months between the time Cupp filed her complaint and the date Walker recommended closing it, the evidence files reveal he hardly worked on the case.

After reviewing more than 1,000 pages of documents, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered that Walker's files contained no interview notes, no status reports, no summaries of what he might have learned during those six months.

There was no account of his first meeting with Cupp last March, no listing of people he may have questioned about the case. Nearly all of the materials were e-mails, letters, and newspaper, magazine and Internet articles Cupp sent to Walker to substantiate her claims.

Interim Inspector General Elizabeth P. Archer would not allow Walker to be interviewed for this article. In explaining why there was scant evidence of Walker's work, she said only that a "preliminary investigation" was conducted.

"We get information in and we have to go through it to determine what the allegation is and whether we have sufficient information to proceed with an investigation," she said.

Cupp's complaint involved the handling of federal money disbursed to about 100 Georgia schools under President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. Because the federal government was investigating similar allegations of abuse, Archer said, that case trumped the state's.

"Rarely do we have these kind of situations come up," she said, adding that if the federal government found wrongdoing here, she could reopen the case.

But other questions about the handling of Cupp's complaint remain, including why Superintendent Cox asked Sehorn to close the case in January, a week after federal investigators paid her office a visit.

"Georgia has complied with the federal laws and regulations in applying for and implementing the Reading First program," she wrote Sehorn on Jan. 26.

"For these reasons, it is important that this case be closed."

Sehorn responded in his Feb. 1 letter that the case already had been closed and noted that it now had been added to a "Closed Case Listing" on the office's Web site.

Cox did not respond to a request for an interview about her letter. But an Education Department spokesman denied she was trying to influence an investigation of her agency.

A member of the inspector general's staff who was present at the meeting with federal investigators had encouraged her to write it, spokesman Dana Tofig said.

"Because there was a federal audit going on, we wanted to be able to point to that and say it was closed," he said.

For Cupp, a fiery, fast-talking Savannahian, the facts surrounding her case add up.

She continued to correspond with Walker even after he documented that he had closed the case. He even accepted hundreds of pages laying out her claims of corruption when the case was no longer active.

Walker wrote in the file that he called Cupp in September to say he was going to let federal investigators take over. But she maintains that he never said he was closing her file.

She didn't learn of the closing until an Atlanta TV reporter looking into the case called her in March, she said.

Once a decorated reading director for the state, Cupp, 57, has been fighting her battle with the Education Department for more than three years. But this latest incident seems to have moved her to give up her one-woman war.

When told Archer might reopen her complaint in the future, Cupp scoffed.

"Tell her to save her breath," she said. "If you were me, would you want them to reopen my case?"

— Bridget Gutierrez
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
2006-05-30


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