Newsflash: Supreme Court Justice Andrew McDonald recuses himself from Lopez v. Vallas case

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News Update:

“Thursday it was announced the State Supreme Court would reinstate a stay allowing Paul Vallas to continue in his job as the city’s schools superintendent pending an appeal of his qualifications to hold the position in Connecticut.”

“According to a court spokesperson, the following members of the court voted on the order: Flemming L. Norcott, Jr., Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, Richard N. Palmer, Justice Carmen E. Espinosa, Dennis G. Eveleigh, and Peter T. Zarella. Senior Justice Christine S. Vertefeuille did not participate and Justice Andrew J. McDonald, who was chief legal advisor to Gov. Dannel Malloy before being named to the court, did not vote, court officials say.  McDonald represented the administration when the state replaced the city school board, a move the high court overturned.”

Source:  http://blog.ctnews.com/education/2013/07/26/the-ct-supreme-court-order-reinstating-vallas-stay/

A copy of the Supreme Court order can be founded here:  http://blog.ctnews.com/education/files/2013/07/order.pdf

Supreme Court leaves Vallas in place during appeal process… (updated with statement from plaintiffs)

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Last Friday lawyers for Paul Vallas filed a brief arguing why Paul Vallas should stay “on the job” during the Supreme Court’s review of Judge Bellis’ ruling that Vallas cannot serve as Bridgeport’s superintendent of schools because he failed to complete a school leadership program as required under state law.

Today, lawyers for Carmen Lopez and the plaintiffs filed a detailed brief that explained why Vallas should not be allowed to stay during the appeal process.  It cited that the fact that Vallas lacks the credentials necessary to serve as a superintendent in Connecticut and that there are plenty of other administrators who could run the school system during the appeal process.

Soon after the brief was filed….the Supreme Court announced that it will release a decision tomorrow allowing Vallas to stay on the job during the appeal process.

Vallas’ lawyers, overlooking reality, immediately declared the Supreme Court’s move a major victory for the “patron saint” of the corporate-funded reform movement.

While it’s true that the decision means Bridgeport’s students, parents, teachers and taxpayers will have to suffer under Vallas’ rule for a few more weeks, the fundamental issue of whether Vallas can stay will be handled by the Supreme Court following briefs and then oral arguments that will take place in the third week of September.

While the Supreme Court’s action is disturbing and even a bit suspicious, it is not necessarily anything more than a decision by the court to focus all of its attention on the far more important part of the case —- did Vallas violate the law by attempting to pass off an independent study course as a school leadership program.

Even more importantly, the Supreme Court’s announcement today did not reveal whether Justice Andrew McDonald did or did not recuse himself from the case.  As Malloy’s previous chief legal counsel, McDonald played a leading role in the Malloy administration’s illegal takeover over of the Bridgeport School System.

When the Supreme Court determined that the Malloy administration acted illegally, McDonald announced that forcing the state to follow the law would “Seriously disrupt the educational opportunities of Bridgeport’s schoolchildren…” and would create a situation that was “unworkable and would maximize disruption.”

Of course, no such disruption took place.  However these are the very words that Vallas’ lawyers are now using to explain why Vallas should be allowed to stay in place despite the fact that he purposely violated state law and still lacks the credentials necessary to hold the superintendent’s job.

If McDonald did not recuse himself,  and instead, played a role in today’s decision to allow Vallas to remain in place during the appeal process it would certainly undermine the credibility of the Supreme Court and the Judicial Branch of Government.

Let’s hope that today’s announcement is not part of a broader situation that would lead the public to believe that the Judicial Branch of Government is not truly the independent branch that is required by Connecticut’s Constitution.

Check back tomorrow for an important update since hopefully the Supreme Court’s written decision will reveal whether Justice McDonald played any role in this unsettling development.

Here is the statement from the plaintiffs:

STATEMENT OF CARMEN L. LOPEZ & DEBORAH REYES-WILLIAMS

This decision, which was rendered without a hearing or argument, is not a decision on the merits of our appeal.

We look forward to arguing the merits of the appeal because we believe that both the law and the facts on our side.

We are confident that Judge Bellis’ decision will be upheld because it is legally sound, and her findings of fact are supported by the evidence which was introduced at trial.

Paul Vallas is not qualified under Connecticut law to serve as Superintendent of Schools.

Nothing said by the Supreme Court today changes that fact.

All the court has done is to reinstate the automatic stay which is provided by the Rules of Practice.

We still believe that the law should not be applied differently based upon a party’s  political connections or those of his wealthy supporters.

If the Connecticut Supreme Court ultimately says that the laws that apply to the rest of us do not apply to the politically well
connected, then it will be a very sad day.

But today is not that day.

You can also read more about today’s news at: http://www.ctpost.com/local/article/Vallas-to-keep-job-during-appeal-process-4687254.php.  Any other news coverage will be added as it becomes available.

Still no word that Justice Andrew McDonald has recused himself from the Vallas Case…

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Andrew McDonald was Governor Malloy’s Chief Counsel for two years.  As we know, he played a pivotal role in the Malloy Administration’s failed attempt to take over the Bridgeport School System.

And when the Supreme Court ruled that the Malloy Administration had violated the law and ordered that Bridgeport’s schools be returned to a democratically elected board of education, Andrew McDonald announced that requiring the state to follow the law would “Seriously disrupt the educational opportunities of Bridgeport’s schoolchildren…” and would create a situation that was “unworkable and would maximize disruption.”

Of course, no such disruption took place.

Now, eighteen months later, the Supreme Court is being asked to allow Paul Vallas to stay on as head of Bridgeport’s schools despite the fact that he lacks the legal credentials to serve as a superintendent in Connecticut.

And the Paul Vallas cheerleaders…are using exactly the same words that McDonald used to explain why Vallas should be exempt from having to follow Connecticut law.

The only difference is that Andrew McDonald has moved on from serving as Malloy’s Chief Counsel and is now a member of the Connecticut’s Supreme Court.

Common sense and the rule of law demand that Justice McDonald remove himself from hearing the case.

But to date, he apparently hasn’t done that.

So what are the rules about justices recusing themselves from cases?

The Connecticut’s Code of Judicial Conduct states, “An independent, fair and impartial judiciary is indispensable to our system of justice. The United States legal system is based on the principle that an independent, impartial, and competent judiciary, composed of men and women of integrity, will interpret and apply the law that governs our society.”

The Code of Judicial Conduct states that “Judges should maintain the dignity of judicial office at all times and avoid both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in their professional and personal lives. They should aspire at all times to conduct that ensures the greatest possible public confidence in their independence, impartiality, integrity, and competence.”

In particular, the rule is that “A judge should disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to the following circumstances:

(A) The judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or a party’s lawyer, or personal knowledge of facts that are in dispute in the proceeding;

(B) The judge served as lawyer in the matter in controversy, or a lawyer with whom the judge previously practiced law served during such association as a lawyer concerning the matter, or the judge or such lawyer has been a material witness concerning it . . . .”

In this case, Justice Andrew McDonald involvement with Governor Malloy, Commissioner Pryor and Paul Vallas includes both sections (A) and (B).

Connecticut is watching…

His participation in this case is inconsistent with Chief Justice Roger’s very public attempt to restore confidence and trust in the Connecticut Judiciary.

It is time for McDonald to recuse himself from this important case, if he hasn’t done so already.

Conflict? What Conflict? The Andrew McDonald Story

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When it comes to the Bridgeport’s schools and Paul Vallas, requiring the State of Connecticut and Bridgeport to follow the law will…

Seriously disrupt the educational opportunities of Bridgeport’s schoolchildren…”

Not to mention it would be “unworkable and would maximize disruption.”

Sounds like the type of hyperbole and rhetoric that has been spewing from Paul Vallas’ and Vallas’ taxpayer-funded lawyers.

But in fact, those exact words came from none other than Andrew McDonald when he was working as Chief Legal Counsel for Governor Malloy.

McDonald played a pivotal role in the state’s illegal takeover of Bridgeport’s Schools.  He was Malloy’s point person when the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the Malloy administration had acted illegally and he was directly involved in secret discussions with legislative leaders to persuade the legislature to pass a law undermining the Supreme Court’s Bridgeport decision.

At the time, Andrew McDonald was even quoted in media outlets around the state and country, including the New York Times saying, “We are reviewing the implications of this decision and intend to discuss further legal and legislative options with state and local officials in the very near future.’

That effort culminated in inserting language intended to subvert the Supreme Court Decision.  According to the Hartford Courant, on behalf of Governor Malloy, McDonald asked lawmakers to validate the state’s takeover of the Bridgeport Board of Education AFTER the State Supreme Court ruled the takeover illegal.  McDonald explained, “This legislation  would eliminate any lingering questions and validate that action.”

The Hartford Courant added, “The Malloy administration’s proposed legal fix for the Bridgeport takeover amounts to two sentences inserted halfway through a 163-page package of education reforms. It targets the situation in Bridgeport particularly by validating any board take over after July 1, 2010, regardless of whether there was training.”

And now…

In what might be considered the most bizarre and politically-charged twist in the whole Bridgeport/Vallas debacle, thanks to Governor Malloy, Andrew McDonald is now a member of the Connecticut Supreme Court.

And at last check, as incredible as it sounds, Justice McDonald has not recused (removed) himself from the case despite the obvious conflict of interest.

Here is the background;

In the summer of 2011, Governor Malloy and his Administration moved to take over the Bridgeport school system.  Their effort included doing away with Bridgeport’s democratically-elected board of education and replacing it with one appointed by the Malloy Administration.  Upon the recommendation of Malloy’s new Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, the illegally-appointed Board of Education then hired Paul Vallas.

At the time of the takeover attempt, three of the elected (but now deposed) members of the Bridgeport Board of Education hired renowned attorney Norm Pattis to sue the State of Connecticut to force it to reverse its actions.

Pattis, with the help of retired Connecticut Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez, brought suit against the Malloy Administration.

In a historic judgment handed down in February 2012, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 that that the Malloy Administration had exceeded its authority and had acted illegally when it took over Bridgeport’s schools.  The Connecticut Supreme Court ordered that Bridgeport’s schools be returned to the control of the Bridgeport Board of Education following a new election to select democratically-elected members for the reconstituted board.

Now eighteen months later, Norm Pattis and retired judge Carmen Lopez are returning to the Supreme Court in what has become the next chapter in the ongoing effort to force the State of Connecticut and the City of Bridgeport to follow the law and, in this case, remove Paul Vallas from the Bridgeport’s superintendent’s office since Vallas lacks the credentials necessary to serve as a superintendent of schools in the State of Connecticut.

As observers know, only a few weeks ago, Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis, ruled that Paul Vallas lacks the credentials necessary to serve as a superintendent in the State of Connecticut and that Vallas could not have had his certification requirement waived since he failed to complete a school leadership program as required under the law.  In a follow-up hearing, Judge Bellis went even further and ruled that there was no reason to allow Vallas to remain as head of Bridgeport’s schools during the appeal process and ordered him to leave the position immediately.

In response, despite not being a party to the case, the City of Bridgeport used taxpayer funds to add a team of outside attorneys to work with their own lawyers and filed an appeal on Vallas’ behalf.

The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis.

But as of Friday, even though Vallas’ attorneys had filed their initial brief to the Supreme Court, Andrew McDonald had still not announced that he was removing himself from the case despite his obvious conflict of interest.

Considering the extraordinary damage his involvement would have on the Supreme Court’s reputation and the rule of law in Connecticut we’ll hope and expect that Justice Andrew McDonald will announce he is recusing himself when the workweek begins.

For more information on McDonald’s previous involvement in the Bridgeport situation read the following:

(1)  http://www.ct.gov/malloy/cwp/view.asp?A=4010&Q=499828

(2)  http://www.ctmirror.org/political-mirror/2012/02/23/retroactively-validating-states-takeover-bridgeport-school-board

(3)  http://articles.courant.com/2012-02-23/news/hc-bridgeport-schools-0224-20120223_1_state-takeover-bridgeport-board-state-board

(4)  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/education/connecticut-court-restores-bridgeport-school-board.html?_r=0

(5)  http://www.excelbridgeport.org/news/ct-post-supreme-court-voids-takeover-of-schools/

(6)  http://www.ctmirror.org/story/key-lawmaker-says-retroactive-fix-bridgeport-school-takeover-unlikely

Misleading media and public, Malloy Administration’s legislation to “Reform SERC” exempts agency from bidding laws

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It is a move that George Orwell would be proud of; Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, the State Board of Education and the Malloy Administration recently explained that they were proposing a new law to ensure transparency and force the State Education Resource Center (SERC) to follow the state’s bidding laws.

However, the proposed legislation is actually written in such a way as TO EXEMPT SERC from having to follow the state’s bidding laws.

To date, the media and observers have taken the Malloy Administration at their word, and while critical of Commissioner Pryor’s use of SERC to end-run Connecticut’s bidding laws, reports have been that Pryor was leading the charge to end the practice he, himself, had used to direct contracts to vendors that he had worked with in the past.

But I digress, let’s go back and start at the beginning of this story;

Upon arriving as Governor Malloy’s Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor used the State Education Resource Center (SERC) to avoid Connecticut’s bidding laws so that he could hire certain consultants to help him develop Malloy’s “education reform” bill.

He directed SERC to hire selected consultants and then transferred state funds to SERC to pay for those contacts.  By using SERC he was able to skip Connecticut’s competitive bidding process.

As Wait, What? readers will recall, the issue generated a fair amount of media attention and criticism.  A whistleblower complaint was submitted to the Connecticut Office of State Auditors by Tom Swan, the Executive Director of CCAG of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.  The complaint demanded a full investigation, claiming that the Education Commissioner’s actions were inappropriate and illegal.

As reported in CTNewsjunkie at the time, “The Malloy administration had no comment beyond what it told the Connecticut Post last Friday, when the governor’s chief legal counsel said Swan’s allegation was “reckless” and “devoid of any evidence.”

[As an aside, the governor’s chief legal counsel, Andrew McDonald, has since been nominated and approved as a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court].

As the State Auditor’s investigation into Commissioner Pryor’s actions continued, and the evidence mounted that the contracts were illegal, Pryor and the Connecticut State Board of Education changed strategies.

Instead of continuing to claim that their contracting procedure was traditional and appropriate, they announced that they were going to propose changes to the laws governing the State Education Resource Center (SERC) to ensure that future contracts met the state’s contracting procedures.

At a special State Board of Education meeting on January 23, 2013 the State Board voted to adopt its 2013 legislative agenda that included a proposal that Pryor explained would hold SERC to “the same contracting and public disclosure standards as any state agency.”

According to an article in the CT Mirror at the time, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor addressed the State Board saying, “Recently some questions have arisen… Some of these questions are legitimate.”

The CTMirror went on to report that Pryor added, “The goal is to enhance confidence in SERC…It’s necessary to formalize the structure and end the ambiguity.”

State Board of Education members voting in favor of Pryor’s bill included the Board’s Chairman, Allan Taylor, Theresa Hopkins-Staten, Terry Jones, Ellen Camhi, Charles Jaskiewicz, Patricia Keavney-Maruca, Estela López and Joseph Vrabely.

Those voting in opposition to the bill?  None.

Just last week, the State Auditors released their official report that determined that Pryor and the State Department of Education had acted illegally.  The whistleblower complaint wasn’t as “reckless” and “devoid of any evidence” as Malloy’s chief counsel had claimed. (See Wait, What? post by clicking here)

Following the Auditor’s report blasting Pryor, the State Department of Education and SERC for their illegal contracting procedures, Kelly Donnelly, Commissioner Pryor’s Director of Communications released a statement to the CT Post that read;

“The State Department of Education is committed to resolving issues raised about the State Education Resource Center in a manner that promotes transparency and accountability…That is why, in January, the department, with the unanimous support of the State Board of Education, proposed new legislation to clarify SERC’s legal status, establish a board of directors as well as new hiring and procurement procedures, and ensure transparency in its operations, among other key reforms.”

A reasonable person would read Pryor’s statement to the State Board of Education and Donnelly’s statement to the media as evidence that the proposed legislation would require that SERC follow Connecticut’s bidding laws.

But alas, that isn’t the case.

In response to the State Department of Education’s statement, the State Auditors said that the “proposed language does not call for a not-for-profit entity and is not consistent with the provisions of quasi-public entities.”

Not consistent with the provisions of quasi-public entities?

Interesting…

So that required a return to the actual language of the bill Pryor and the State Board of Education approved at their special meeting and that the Malloy Administration submitted to the Connecticut General Assembly.

As expected, the proposed legislation modifies Section 10-4q of the Connecticut state Statutes, the statute that creates and governs the State Education Resource Center (SERC).

But what went undetected by the media and observers that day was a new Section (h) of the law which reads;

(h) (NEW) Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 4-98, 4-212 to 4-219, inclusive, 4a-51 and 4a-57, the Department, in agreement with the board of the State Education Resource Center, may allocate funds to the State Education Resource Center to allow the State Education Resource Center to provide professional development services, technical assistance, evaluation activities, policy analysis, and other forms of assistance to local and regional boards of education, State Department of Education, charter schools, technical high schools, school readiness providers and other educational entities.

The impact of the language “Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 4-98, 4-212 to 4-219” means that when this proposed bill becomes law, the Commissioner of Education may ask SERC to provide services (hire consultants) and when doing that, SERC is exempt from Sections 4-212 to 4-219 of the Connecticut State Statutes. 

That is, notwithstanding the law, SERC may sign contracts without having to go through the process required in 4-212 to 4-219.

So what do sections 4-212 to 4-219 of the Connecticut State Statutes cover?

The bidding procedures associated with personal service agreements including;

  • Personal Service Agreements cost of not more than twenty thousand dollars
  • Personal Service Agreements having cost of more than twenty thousand dollars but not more than fifty thousand dollars
  • Personal Service Agreements having cost of more than fifty thousand dollars or term of more than one year. 
  • And amendments to personal service agreements.

The legislation proposed by Commissioner Pryor, unanimously approved by the State Board of Education and submitted by the Malloy Administration does “reform” the structure of the State Education Service Center. 

However, part of that reform IS TO EXEMPT SERC from Connecticut’s laws governing the use of personal service agreements (aka the very contracts for consultants that got Pryor into trouble in the first place).

Instead, SERC would be given the authority to come up with its own process for hiring consultants.

No other state agency has that ability and no other quasi state agency has that ability.

But that is exactly what the bill submitted by the Malloy Administration does.

The Malloy Administration’s goal was to say one thing and do another…

The goal was to get the media to listen to what was being said and not what was being done…

And they just about got away with it.