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DeKalb Schools declines to reveal origin of investigation that cleared former superintendent

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DeKalb Schools declines to reveal origin of investigation that cleared former superintendent

Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris comments during the DeKalb County Board of Education regular meeting on Monday, April 18, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in The District, a special newsletter for paying subscribers of Decaturish.com. To become a paying subscriber, visit supportmylocalnews.com

This story has been updated. 

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb County Board of Education’s attorneys earlier this year hired a private firm to investigate allegations of sketchy promotions in the district and questionable use of federal coronavirus relief money on employee bonuses.

As first reported by Decaturish, the investigation, led by The Young Group LLC, released a report that exonerated former superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, finding that things were being done by her subordinates without her knowledge or approval.

But who ordered the investigation? And what specifically prompted it?

The Young Group report says, “the DCSD BOE expressed concerns that individuals were being promoted to executive-level positions without being presented to the [The DeKalb County School District Board of Education] for approval. The DCSD BOE had concerns that CARES ACT federal funds had been distributed without proper authorization and/or were mishandled.”

The DeKalb County School Board never approved hiring the Young Group in public meetings. Some school board members were unaware it was happening, Watson-Harris said.

Board member Anna Hill first alluded to the investigation during a recent Dunwoody Homeowner’s Association meeting.

“I can also assure you more information will be forthcoming,” Hill said, afterwards declining to confirm if an investigation was taking place. Hill spoke to the Dunwoody Homeowner’s Association on May 1. The Young Group’s report is dated May 3.

Hill on May 19 said she did not ask for the investigation, but declined further comment.

Board member Allyson Gevertz said she was unaware of the investigation until she heard about Hill’s remarks to the DHA.

“There was never a formal discussion of who would do the investigation, what the scope would be, what the cost would be,” Gevertz said. “I don’t know about it for real until it came out.”

Gevertz believes DeKalb School Board Chair Vickie Turner asked the school district’s attorney to hire someone to do the investigation. Turner has not returned numerous messages seeking comments for this article and other articles.

On May 12, Decaturish filed an open records request with the DeKalb County School District for the following records:

– Any agreements between DeKalb County School District and The Young Group, LLC

– Any checks or payments made to The Young Group LLC

– Any engagement letter executed with The Young Group, LLC

– Any communications – via email or letter – between The Young Group, LLC and DCSD legal counsel and board members.

On May 17, the district provided a copy of a $13,200 unpaid invoice issued on May 6.

“There are no agreement/engagement letters,” said Wanda Ngote, who works in employee relations at DCSD. “All communications are subject to the attorney-client privilege and/or the attorney work-product privilege.”

Decaturish has pushed back on this claim and asked the district to clarify if there were no engagement letters or if they are claiming the engagement letters fall under attorney client privilege. The district has not responded.

The invoice does reveal some new details about the investigation. It apparently began on Feb. 17, much earlier than the Young Group report indicated. That report says interviews began on March 6 and included a total of 13 people, including then-superintendent Watson-Harris. After the investigator interviewed her on April 26, the DeKalb County Board of Education unexpectedly fired her.

A message left with The Young Group was not immediately returned. The investigation was headed up by Gina Young, a former FBI agent.

According to her LinkedIN profile:

Gina Young possesses over 20 years of law enforcement and national security experience as an FBI Special Agent. Gina served in New York City, the FBI’s largest field office conducting complex international organized crime and public corruption investigations. Following the attacks on 9/11, Gina was promoted to FBI Headquarters in Washington DC where she supported sensitive domestic and international terrorism investigations. As a Supervisory Special Agent in Atlanta, Georgia, Gina lead the Domestic Terrorism and Public Corruption – Civil Rights Task Forces with special emphasis on law enforcement corruption, human trafficking and crimes against children.

Gina consistently practiced the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct throughout her career. Gina was regularly recognized by the FBI, The United States Attorney’s Office, State Prosecutors and local law enforcement agencies for her leadership and success in high profile investigations and prosecutions.

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