At one point, former DeKalb County school Superintendent Crawford Lewis was depicted as a criminal mastermind in a scheme involving millions of dollars of taxpayer money.
Then, last week, prosecutors let him plead guilty to one misdemeanor count, reducing him to a bit player. His possible time behind bars dropped from decades to mere months, if that.
The school district spent only $100,000 on Lewis’ criminal defense, capping the cost as part of his 2010 termination agreement. But the criminal case spilled over into a long-running lawsuit with roots in the construction program Lewis and his former co-defendants were accused of defrauding. The school district’s legal battle with former construction manager Heery International, Inc., which claimed false termination due to the alleged conspiracy, has cost the district around $18 million.
In the end, though, the biggest cost may not appear on a balance sheet. Prosecutors spent more than three years building their case against Lewis. That exceptionally long germination – experts say it typically takes a third as much time to go from indictment to trial – left suspicions marinating, sowing mistrust in Georgia’s third largest school system and opening the door to other woes, such as near loss of accreditation.
“The indictment and the ensuing leadership vacuum in the school system for all these years, it’s a very unpleasant chapter in DeKalb’s history,” said former school board member Nancy Jester. She was among six board members removed by Gov. Nathan Deal after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put the district on probation. SACS had complained of financial mismanagement and runaway legal expenses that sapped resources from classrooms.
The remaining defendants in the criminal case are Pat Reid, who was the district’s chief operating officer under Lewis, and architect Tony Pope, her husband at the time. Reid is accused of steering work to Pope’s firm and her friends, including two unindicted co-conspirators. Prosecutors offered to waive the felony charges against Lewis in exchange for his testimony against them.
Some parents wonder whether the bargain was worth it.
Barbara Arne has known Lewis since before his rise to superintendent. Arne, who has long served in volunteer leadership roles at Lakeside High School, said the indictment confirmed suspicions of a management culture gone awry. She counts herself among those who hoped it would usher in an era of reform — in both the school system and in county government, where the former CEO is now under indictment.
But she doesn’t see any change, not when Lewis “gets off” with a misdemeanor.
“I think, basically, people in the county have given up on the school system and the county. I think they think they’re hopelessly corrupt,” Arne said, adding: “I think they’re hopelessly corrupt.”
Others, including those who until recently maintained Lewis’ innocence, agree the case has taken a toll on the school district.
It “kept a cloud” over the district, said Zepora Roberts, who served on the school board when Lewis was superintendent.
She said she was “surprised and deeply disappointed” when Lewis pleaded guilty Wednesday to obstruction of a law enforcement officer. She said she still doesn’t believe he played a significant role in the bigger crime, though.
Lewis, like Reid, had been charged with a count of racketeering and with three counts of theft by taking by a government official. Unlike Reid, who still faces 65 years in prison, Lewis will get no more than 12 months. Pope, charged with one count of racketeering and another of theft by taking, could get 30 years.
Prosecutors at one point claimed a criminal conspiracy by the trio resulted in illegal payments to Pope of about $4 million due to alleged contract manipulations. The district attorney has since re-indicted the case, removing some of the contracts and reducing that amount to just over $1 million.
Roberts said the charges against Lewis never made sense to her, since the alleged contract manipulations seemed to benefit Pope and by extension his wife at the time, Reid.
“It’s like somebody in the district attorney’s office just got a paper and pencil and wrote a story to get him,” Roberts said. The only obvious benefit for Lewis was minor gifts, such as tickets to professional sporting events, according to the court records. “Why would he go into collusion with Pat to help bring in money to them, and he’s not getting anything for it?”
The trip from indictment to trial has taken 3 1/2 years, in part because prosecutors tried to dislodge one of Lewis’ lawyers from the case. That took up time in the Georgia Court of Appeals.
“It’s not uncommon for a racketeering case or public corruption case to take years to investigate. But normally, once a case is indicted, it will move to trial in a year,” said attorney Page Pate, who is not involved in this case. He said the plea agreement DA Robert James gave Lewis was “an incredibly sweet deal.”
Like others watching the case, Pate wonders what testimony prosecutors will get from Lewis when the trial starts Oct. 28.
“Will it justify the length of the investigation and the $100,000 that went to his defense,” Pate wondered.
Arne, the parent at Lakeside High, said she fears mistrust in DeKalb governance will have a long-term effect. About a dozen homes have sold in her neighborhood over the past year, she said, most to empty nesters. Only two families with children moved in, and only one of them sends a child to the public schools. The others go to private school.
Others aren’t so gloomy. Maria Thomas, who was trudging through the rain Thursday afternoon to collect her daughter from Montgomery Elementary, where Lewis was once the principal, said she hasn’t kept up with his criminal case. She doesn’t know what it means for the district, but she does know it hasn’t hurt her own school.
“Our teachers are still great; our principal is still great,” she said. “Right now, we’re not affected, I guess.”