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Schools' finance officer threatens lawsuit
Claims superintendent violated laws
Roger Reese
Roger Reese's attorney claims Reese was put on administrative leave because he wouldn't violate board policy and state law over handling of bids for bank services. The attorney for the school district denies the allegation. - photo by File photo

Related article: Schools' finance officer threatens lawsuit

Liberty County School System Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee is being threatened with a lawsuit by the system’s chief financial officer, Roger Reese, according to a letter from Reese’s attorney sent to school board members.

The Jan. 18 letter from Reese’s lawyer, Matthew Billips, claims Reese has been put on administrative leave and faces losing his job because he refused to support Lee’s recommendation regarding bank bids to provide the district’s financial services.

The letter seeks his reinstatement and more than $33,000 in back pay, claiming he has been underpaid since his hiring in 2014.

It claims Lee violated school board policy and state law with regard to recent sealed bids for banking services the system received from Ameris Bank and Heritage Bank.

In addition, the letter said Reese was put on administrative leave by the superintendent because he went over her head to school board chairwoman Lily Baker, a violation of the Georgia Whistleblower Protection Act.

Lee said it was a personnel matter and referred all question to the school district’s attorney.

He issued a statement late Friday denying the allegations.

“The school district strongly denies that the process that it followed with regard to a review of banking services violated board policy or state law,” LCBOE attorney Phillip L. Hartley said. “The review by the Board was conducted in public meetings using a standard process.”

At the school board’s January meeting, bids were sought for a two-year contract to do the system’s banking. 

The bids were opened and viewed by members the school system’s Financial Services Committee, and the letter to Lee from Reese’s attorney claims both Reese and the committee recommended Heritage Bank, which at the time was the district’s bank, be awarded the contract.

But Billips’ letter said that instead of submitting the recommendation to the school board at its January meeting, Lee tried to get Reese to change his recommendation to Ameris Bank, where her husband is a mortgage loan officer.

The letter also claims  Lee continued to insist that Reese reach out to Ameris Bank to request a revised proposal, in violation of state law and board policy. Reese refused.

“When you put something out for sealed bid… Once the bids are open or once the deadline is passed...  You don’t get to come back in and find out what the other person has bid and undercut them or negotiate the bids... That is in the BOE policy itself….” Billips said. “It preserves the integrity of the sealed bids…. In this particular instance where you have one of the bidders an employee of one of the bidders married to the superintendent, it is particularly important to maintain the integrity of that sealed bid process.”

Billips said Lee should instead have started the bid process over or gave her recommendation while telling the school board financial services staff members disagreed with her finding.

“What the superintendent could have done was certainly make her own recommendation and noted that the financial services department disagreed with her and then the board could have voted. But make it based on the bid that Ameris Bank had actually submitted,” Billips added.

Lee recommended to the school board that Ameris Bank be given the contract, according to minutes of the board’s January meeting, but the minutes do not say Reese and the Financial Services Committee came up with a different recommendation.

“What that does is expose her to charges of nepotism and ethics violations because she is recommending that they (BOE) accept a bid that has the potential of providing financial benefits to her husband,” Billips noted.

The minutes do not contain the amount of the bids from either bank. The school board met in executive session in December to discuss the issue, which is allowed by state law.

In January, the BOE voted to award the bid to Ameris Bank with only one member opposing, Marcus Scott IV.

Scott, who has disagreed with Lee on matters in the past, said he voted no because the committee and Reese recommended Heritage Bank. 

“(I voted no) because the committee Dr. Lee chose to select a bank voted for Heritage Bank and Roger Reese recommended Heritage,” Scott said when asked why he voted no. “There was a perceived conflict of interest with her husband working for the bank… And I felt we rushed the process.”

For Billips, a bigger issue is what happened after Reese talked to the school board chairwoman.

“The most problematic thing here is that the fact that once these issues were exposed the superintendent’s reaction was to terminate the whistleblower and this is not a first time occurrence,” Billips said, claiming Reese was first placed on administrative leave, then told he would not get a contract for the next school year.

 “He was told that if he does not resign…that they were going to initiate his termination,” Billips said.

It is unknown if Reese is still employed by the school board. Calls to his office went to his voicemail, which was full and unable to receive messages on Wednesday.

Hartley’s response to the issue regarding Reese was, “As far as any personnel matter, it is not the practice of the District to discuss personnel matters publicly unless and until the board of education is required to take action in order to protect any confidentiality rights of employees.”

Billips’ letter demands Reese be reinstated and for  Lee to stop threatening his employment, while also paying him back pay, or else  they will go to court.

The letter to Lee also claims Billips represented a client in a similar whistleblower law suit against her filed in Clayton County in 2009. The outcome of that lawsuit was unclear Friday.

Related article: Schools' finance officer threatens lawsuit

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