Newsworks school investigation prompts mayoral action, but is it enough?

    One thing that hasn’t gotten quite enough attention is that the entire tempest is the result of an investigation by Newsworks’ Bill Hangley, published jointly by Newsworks and the Public School Notebook.

    Hangley covered education in the past for WHYY, and he worked this story with the diligence of a veteran beat reporter, getting sourced and getting information that, to use a cliché, blew the lid off of the charter award process at Martin Luther King high.

    And the veterans at the Public School Notebook were terrific reporting and editing partners.

    Hangley reported that School Reform Commission chairman Robert Archie, right after recusing himself from a vote on which organization would manage King, participated in a closed-door meeting that appeared to have reversed the outcome of the vote.

    Other media have picked up on the story, and have given credit to the Public School Notebook (which has been doing great reporting on the School District for years), but have mostly omitted the contribution of Newsworks. I hope they give us our due in the future.

    If you missed them, read some of Hangley’s stories here, here, here and here.

    The latest development in the saga is that Mayor Nutter has initiated an inquiry into the controversy, and it will be an tricky undertaking for the person asking the questions.

    It’s Joan Markman, a former federal prosecutor whom Nutter named as the city’s first-ever chief integrity officer when he came into office. Markman is a straight arrow, and the fact that her office is literally only steps from Nutter’s has drawn some muted complaints from some who think Nutter has taken this squeaky-clean government thing a little too far.

    It seems to me Markman will be in an awkward spot here. She’ll be trying to determine whether Archie, the mayor’s friend and appointee behaved improperly in the closed door meeting that cleared the way for a multi-million contract for a non-profit his law firm had done business with.

    Markman has plenty of experience investigating allegations of official wrongdoing as an assistant U.S. attorney, but this will be different.

    She’ll interview all the principals, but that’s a far cry from taking statements under oath, or relying on FBI interviews in which the subject can be prosecuted for telling tall tales.

    It’s not clear what leverage she’ll have if someone doesn’t cooperate or if she suspects they aren’t telling the truth. She’ll be asking for documents, but it’s not clear what will happen if she doesn’t get them, or  get all of them.

    When the state ethics commission conducts an investigation, its staff is authorized to subpoena documents and get sworn statements. You can see their regulations here.

    The Markman probe reminds me of occasions when public agencies ask private law firms to investigate questionable activity. It may get you somewhere, it may not.

    That said, I can see why Nutter chose to ask Markman to look into it rather than waiting to see if some other body would investigate. Archie is his appointee, and questions about his actions were mounting.

    Markman needs to do a thorough job, do it quickly, and write a report that gets to the bottom of what happened. If she can’t, somebody else will have to.

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