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 Zurwell Investigation Reveals Inconsistencies in CAB’s Answers Regarding Public Records

May 9, 2007 - An investigation by the Henry County Sheriff’s Department has revealed the Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corp. and its attorney apparently had two sets of answers to questions about the departure of CAB’s former business manager and related requests for public records: one for investigators; another for The Banner.

Hired by the CAB School Board in mid-August, Amanda Zurwell began work as CAB’s business manager on September 5. Citing a “medical condition” that would not allow her “to return to work for an indefinite amount of time,” she abruptly resigned January 19.

The Banner first inquired about Zurwell immediately following the school board’s January 16 meeting, which she did not attend. CAB Superintendent David McGuire told The Banner he did not know why Zurwell was absent, and while he acknowledged she had not been at work since January 11, he said she had not been suspended or placed on leave, and dismissed the “wild rumors” he said he heard were going around.

At a special meeting on January 23, the school board accepted Zurwell’s letter of resignation, which was dated January 19. Speaking to The Banner the following week, McGuire said he had become aware of a criminal investigation of Zurwell in Brown County related to her former job as treasurer at Brown County School Corp. around January 11. However, he said he had no indication Zurwell resigned from CAB for any reason other than the unspecified medical condition mentioned in her letter of resignation.

Speaking to an investigator from the Henry County Sheriff’s Department on February 6, however, McGuire said it was he who had asked Zurwell to resign. HCSD Detective Sgt. Elmer New said in a report filed with the Henry Superior Court I that McGuire told him he had learned about the Brown County investigation and had asked Zurwell to resign after identifying a problem with her salary at CAB.

According to New’s report, McGuire also gave him a printout of an e-mail Zurwell had sent to both him and CAB’s public access officer, Jena Schmidt. In the e-mail, dated January 12, Zurwell acknowledged the Brown County investigation and what she characterized as “the administrative leave or suspension or whatever,” but questioned why she was being asked to resign.

On January 22 and again on February 2 – just four days prior to McGuire’s meeting, The Banner submitted record requests to CAB asking for, among other things, copies of e-mails sent to Zurwell or from her. On February 7, Schmidt notified The Banner that “all … e-mails were lost” in a recent technology upgrade at CAB’s central office. There was no mention at all of Zurwell’s January 12 e-mail to McGuire and Schmidt, a copy of which had been given to New just the day before.

Believing CAB had a duty under the law to protect the e-mails of Zurwell and other CAB employees from loss, alteration, mutilation or destruction, The Banner filed a formal complaint in early March against the school corporation with the state’s public access counselor. In response to The Banner’s complaint, CAB’s attorney, Michael Wallman, told the PAC the e-mail accounts lost in the technology upgrade included Zurwell and Angela Moss, the payroll clerk who resigned December 1, and that the e-mail account of former Treasurer Judy Barnes was deleted following her last day at work, which was on or about February 19.

Despite the failure of CAB to preserve the e-mails of Zurwell, Moss and Barnes, Wallman claimed in his response to the PAC that the e-mails requested by The Banner in its two record requests never existed. He said this was determined by reviewing existing e-mail accounts, which he said did not “reveal any of the requested exchanges with Zurwell.”

In a formal opinion issued in early April, Public Access Counselor Karen Davis was unable to say definitively whether or not the school corporation had violated the Access to Public Records Act. Noting CAB was “required to protect its public records, including e-mail, from loss alteration, mutilation, or destruction,” Davis could only say the school corporation would have violated the APRA if it destroyed e-mails in a manner other than that set forth in the record retention schedule adopted by the county’s commission of public records. Not knowing what, if any, e-mails had been lost, Davis had no way to determine if this was the case.

The Banner first learned of the existence of Zurwell’s January 12 e-mail to McGuire and Schmidt last week after obtaining a copy of New’s investigative report, which had been filed in the Henry Superior Court I. Prosecutor Kit Crane confirmed Monday that New had given his office a copy of the e-mail, but because it was considered an investigative record from the perspective of his office, he declined to provide a copy directly to The Banner. However, he agreed to fax a copy of the e-mail back to CAB so The Banner could again request a copy from the school corporation.

 

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