Manassas Journal Messenger | School board still in the dark on a few charter school issues

In the 1960s, the General Assembly enacted legislation that exposed the workings of government to the light of day.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gave ordinary citizens “ready access to public records in the custody of a public body or its officers and employees, and free entry to meetings of public bodies wherein the business of the people is being conducted.” (31VAC 2.2-3700).

Under FOIA, citizens have access to information such as memos, e-mails and letters – information that can offer insight into policies and actions made by government officials.

A FOIA request to the Prince William County School Board has uncovered some interesting information regarding the PWLA charter school proposal. Two pieces of correspondence in particular, a letter from Attorney General Jerry Kilgore to former Delegate Jack Rollison, R-Woodbridge, (which is also available on the Internet) and a letter from the school board’s counsel, uncover discussion of a potential conflict of interest in the PWLA application.

What is a conflict of interest?

In 1987, the General Assembly enacted a State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act to standardize conduct for officers and employees of the commonwealth at all levels of government. They enacted this legislation in part because they recognized that in order for citizens to maintain “the highest trust in their public officers and employees, [we] are entitled to be reassured that the judgment of public officers and employees will be guided by a law that defines and prohibits inappropriate conflicts and requires disclosure of economic interests” (31VAC 2.2-3100).

The potential conflict of interest begins in 2.2-3109(A). This section states that no officer or employee of any governmental agency of a local government shall have a personal interest in a contract with the agency of which he is an officer or employee other than his own contract of employment. Personal interest is defined as having a “financial benefit accruing” to the person or a member of her family.

Samia Harris, managing director of the PWLA, owns the property upon which the school will be built. Her charter school proposal indicates the county will rent this building. This would appear to be a striking violation of the conflict of interest laws because Ms. Harris has a personal interest in the contract and will financially benefit from it.

Not so, as Ms. Harris is quick to point out. She does not own the building. Rather an entity called Harris Enterprises, which according to the charter application is solely owned by Ms. Harris, owns the land and building. Therefore, she technically has no personal interest in the contract because her company is the other party to the contract, not her.

To their credit, the legislators in Richmond foresaw the possibility that a technicality such as this might be utilized to circumnavigate the spirit of the law. For this reason, 2.2-3101 defines personal interest as having an “ownership interest exceeding three percent” or owning property worth more than $10,000. Thus, a person would not be able to form a company then enter that company into a contract that would personally benefit said person.

It is here we arrive at another technicality. Originally, Ms. Harris was to be employed by the PWLA as headmistress, which would make her an employee of the school system. However, there is information to suggest that Ms. Harris has decided to be a consultant to the school, rather than the headmistress.

This could free her from a conflict of interest as the school system does not consider consultants to be employees.

Throughout this column, I have used words such as “appear” and “suggest” because there is no way of telling whether a conflict of interest exists. As I have learned from the letters, I am apparently not the only person to whom the PWLA is reluctant to provide additional information.

In her letter to the school board, Ms. McGowan, the school board’s attorney, states that Ms. Harris was asked for additional information in May (and twice afterward) to enable the school board to obtain a determination on the conflict of interest issue. As of Sept. 11, 2003, that information still had not been provided.

Denise Oppenhagen lives in Lake Ridge.

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