REC 9 denies person it hired to investigate misuse of Head Start funds has conflict of interest.

Do educational professionals understand the concept of conflict of interest?

Almost anyone remotely familiar with adjudicating or mediating a grievance in the workplace understands that a hearing officer should disclose any interest or relationship which might affect impartiality or which could produce an appearance of partiality.

The following is about a failure to understand that, or a sad story about people who figure they are exempt from the scrutiny of their professional behavior.

The Candle reported in late May that Bryan Dooley, executive director of the Region 9 Education Cooperative, had been accused of misusing federal funds related to Head Start programs, as well as harassing and intimidating members of a parent and stakeholder council.

The complaint was made by Davida Cox, the Chair of the Head Start Policy Council.

At the time, Dooley responded to The Candle’s inquiries that he had no comment as to the allegations contained in the complaint, and Cox has not been available to us for questions either.

The Candle gathered significant information however, from sources and through Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) requests, to file the following story.

The hearings officer chosen to review the complaint has received considerable compensation by way of REC 9 contracts she has worked on as sub-contractor.

Compensation reviewed and signed off by the very person she is investigating.

As reported in a second story on this matter, federal officials from Health and Human Services Administration for Children & Families in the Washington, D.C. (HHS), have taken “these allegations seriously. HHS, through the Office of Head Start, has been in dialogue with the grantee agency and the board in regard to the allegations … After the Office of Head Start has an opportunity to assess the claims, the regional office will determine an appropriate course of action.”

According to HHS policy, an intervening effort to resolve the dispute is part of what goes into determining an appropriate course of action.

For its part in the process of resolving the dispute, the Coordinating Council of REC 9, (comprised of superintendents of schools in   Capitan, Carrizozo, Cloudcroft, Corona, Ruidoso, Hondo, and Tularosa) contracted Paul and Associates, LLC to act as a Hearing Officer for the formal complaint brought by Cox.

Linda M. Paul, Ed. D., is president of Paul and Associates, LLC.

She is the former executive director of the New Mexico State Leadership Institute (NMSLI) at the University of New Mexico (UNM). Prior to that job she was superintendent for the Aztec Municipal School District for eight years.

Paul is no stranger to the people who run REC 9, nor to the public funds which REC 9 receives from the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) through no-bid intergovernmental agreements (IGA’s).

PED has entered into IGA’s with REC 9, for more than $50 million over the past six years.

And Paul has been on the receiving end of work derived from such IGA’s – in fact, quite a bit of work, albeit by way of third parties.

As revealed in the Fall 2014, issue of UNM COE (College of Education) EXPLORE, News, Notes, and Announcement from the Office of Research and Information Management, Paul is listed as the NMSLI individual associated with a $700,000.00 award for NMTEACH – a project of PED, administered by REC 9.

The Candle has also discovered that Paul received substantial compensation from another organization REC 9 has several PED-approved contracts with – the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), based in Atlanta Georgia.

According to information gathered from an inspection of public document request, REC 9, has been directed by PED to contract in the millions of dollars with SREB since at least 2013.

Invoices from SREB to REC 9, and signed off by the executive director(s) of REC 9, (including Dooley on at least two since he has been executive director), show Paul’s time being billed by SREB for $2,200/day (and in some cases at $1,500/day).

From April 2016 through April 2017, The Candle has reviewed six invoices submitted by SREB, which were signed off by the executive director(s) and for which checks were written to SREB totaling $3,192,240.94.

During that same period, and included in what was invoiced for those checks, Paul’s services were billed by SREB to REC 9, for at least $205,000.00.

Two of the superintendents who serve on the coordinating council were signatories to these checks, including the Chairman, Corona Superintendent of schools Travis Lightfoot.

The Candle reached out to Mr. Lightfoot, who upon returning our call, would not offer a definitive answer as to who decided to engage Paul as hearing officer for the Head Start complaint against Dooley.

He said he would not make a statement on the record on that point.

When asked how Paul could be considered an unbiased hearing officer and/or investigator of the complaint, and more specifically, didn’t Paul have a conflict of interest given the SREB contracts signed off by Dooley (and for which she received substantial compensation), Lightfoot told The Candle he did not feel there was a conflict of interest in using Paul, because she was not an employee of REC 9, and her contract was with SREB, not REC 9.

When queried further regarding SREB having contracts with REC 9, from which Paul received compensation, Lightfoot insisted REC 9 was only a ‘fiscal agent’ for SREB contracts on behalf of NM PED, and he and REC 9 had no control over who worked for or with SREB.

The Candle also contacted Paul, who stated she saw no conflict of interest, even after it was pointed out she received compensation from SREB as a result of work she performed under a contract SREB had with REC 9.

When pressed about how much money she had received from SREB from her work on the REC 9 contracts, Paul said she could not recall the amount.

Asked to give a ballpark figure, she insisted she couldn’t, but would call us back with a figure later that evening.

She texted later, writing she was “caring for a family member and can’t get into my records. Please get the info you need from other sources. Thanks.”

The Candle also sent an email to HHS regarding what we found about the relationship between Paul, SREB, and REC 9, stating:

“…research shows an individual of that same name to be a recipient of payments for extensive work done under contracts the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) has with REC 9.

“If this is verified, then there would be an inappropriate if not an outright conflict of interest for Dr. Paul to conduct any such investigation, as the person at the center of the complaint signs the contracts and oversees the issuance of payment for Dr. Paul’s employer (or client if she is a sub-contractor for SREB).”

The Candle further queried as to whether: “…REC 9, as the fiscal agent for the Head Start programs affected has disclosed this relationship to Region 6 HHS Head Start officials … and does HHS believe that there is a potential ethical issue with such an arrangement?”

HHS spokesperson Patrick Fisher responded they would respond as soon as they had an answer.

We recently received a copy of the report that Paul produced.

That report: “Formal Complaint Resolution Decision,” will be the subject of a story for which we continue to research.

A copy of two of the invoices and related checks referred to above, and containing executive directors’ and Council Chairman’s signatures can be seen by clicking on headings below:

February 2017 SREB Invoice to REC 9

April 2017 SREB Invoice to REC 9.

Additional documentation The Candle has received will be posted in investigative reports to be published soon regarding NM PED, REC 9, SREB, and other subcontractors.