Former Liberty County School System Chief Financial Officer Roger Reese has filed a lawsuit against LCSS Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee and the school system in Liberty County Superior Court.
The suit demands Reese be reinstated as the finance director with full salary, lost wages and benefits and that the record of his termination be expunged.
The suit was filed April 11, the same day a tribunal hearing was held regarding Reese’s termination at a called meeting at the BoE Office.
Reese and his lawyer, Matthew Billips were not at the tribunal hearing.
The suit alleges Lee and the LCSS violated the Georgia Whistleblower Act and were in breach of Reese’s employment contract.
He claims his firing was a retaliatory measure for opposing Lee during the request for proposals for new banking services for the LCSS.
Among the items addressed in the suit is Reese’s salary. The suit states Reese had 35 years of related experience when hired by Lee. Based on his experience, Billips claims Reese should have been placed at step
22 of the pay scale. The suit states that Reese was placed on step 12 for the 2014-15 school year; step 13 for the following year and step 20 for the current year, meaning he’s been underpaid and owed $33,000.
At Tuesday’s tribunal, Lee said that Reese accepted the lower salary when hired. Lee said Reese was offered more personal days off to offset the difference in pay, which he took. Reese’s salary was increased in the 2015-16 school year, Lee said.
However Lee added that during the course of recent audits and when Reese’s final salary was requested by media the school system found out he gave himself an $11,000 raise without her approval or that of the BoE.
The suit claims that Reese’s incorrect placement on the salary schedule was a breach of contract.
A matter of semantics
On the issue of banking services, the suit claims Lee asked Reese in July to meet with Ameris Bank to discuss banking services for the system. Billips claims that Reese said it was unusual to meet with vendors prior to developing a proposal, but went ahead and met with bank representatives as requested by Lee.
Lee has maintained that Ameris Bank representative James Rogers spoke to her about banking services but that she told Rogers to speak with Reese and he was impressed with the services Ameris Bank could provide.
Lee claims that Reese said they should switch banks, but she asked Reese to send out request for proposals to all local banks to see what other banking options might be available.
The suit states Lee asked Reese to ask for sealed bids in September. Two proposals were submitted by the October deadline, from Heritage Bank and Ameris Bank.
The proposals were reviewed by an appointed finance committee comprised of then-Assistant Finance Director Janine Graham, then-Executive Director of Maintenance and Operations Jason Rogers and Transportation Director John Lyles.
According to the suit they recommended The Heritage Bank, because it required no minimum balance for deposits, did not place a hold on deposits and Heritage did not charge any fees.
The suit said Ameris Bank’s proposal required a minimum balance of $8 million, required a hold on deposits and would charge fees for returned checks and other fees.
The suit alleges that instead of submitting the committee’s recommendation to the BoE, Lee challenged Reese, requesting he change his recommendation.
Reese further alleges that Lee asked him to reach out to Ameris Bank to discuss options, a violation of the sealed bid process. Lee said the request for proposals were not part of a formal sealed big process according to Liberty County School System policy.
Under that policy, once the bids are opened, a vendor is not to be contacted for the purpose of negotiating a better deal.
The bidding process is to be considered complete when the bids are opened, however the school board and its employees reserve the right to request clarification. For the requests for proposals, school system policy states proposals will be submitted to the superintendent or a designee for evaluation.
The instruction letter dated Sept. 22, 2016 sent out with the RFPs said the board reserved the right to call for new proposals or negotiate required services with the bank or banks which, in the judgment of the board, offered the most acceptable proposal.
Reese’s suit also noted a potential conflict of interest because Lee’s husband is a mortgage broker who works out of the Hinesville Branch. Ameris Bank officials disputed that claim and said Gerald Lee is paid by a mortgage group in Atlanta.
The suit also alleges that when Reese failed to comply with Lee’s demand regarding the requests for proposals, Lee reinstated Rogers as the internal auditor and executive director of operations Nov. 17.
On Dec. 13, representatives from The Heritage Bank and Ameris presented their proposals to the board during a called meeting. Reese’s lawsuit claims that Ameris changed its original proposal and no longer required a deposit balance, holds on deposits and removed all service fees.
Attorneys for Ameris Bank deny the proposals were changed.
The BoE voted to accept Ameris Bank 6-1.
The suit claims Lee is presenting false allegations about Reese’s job performance. In a March 3, letter from BoE attorney Phillip Hartley to Reese and Billips, Hartley claimed that Reese, “increased his own compensation without board approval and in violation of a directive from the superintendent for the current year by moving himself up seven steps on the pay scale without authorization from the board.”
Reese was making $141,168 at the time he was placed on leave in January.
Hartley also cites Reese’s incompetency, insubordination, intentional neglect of duty and “other good and sufficient cause” as reasons Lee took steps to have him fired.
However, in the suit, Billips notes that Reese received the “Extra Mile Award,” from the BoE based on exceeding expectation levels in his job performance. The award was given to Reese in May, the same month that Lee assigned Reese additional duties and a new title — executive director for operations, the same one given back to Rogers in November.