ECOT’s Offer of Hush Money to Employees Prompts Call for Reform
For Immediate ReleaseApril 30, 2018COLUMBUS – The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s decision to offer taxpayer-financed hush money to past employees prompted strong criticism from watchdogs – and calls for reform – during a Monday press conference.
News that several past employees were offered public money in exchange for agreeing not to disparage the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) follows an Associated Press story that quoted a whistleblower saying the Department of Education was informed last August that ECOT manipulated software to garner unearned money from the state. The whistleblower also provided the information to Auditor David Yost last year.
“Charter schools are also public schools,’’ noted Common Cause Executive Director Catherine Turcer. “These non-disclosure agreements are an effort to circumvent transparency and accountability and they highlight the need for better transparency in all quasi-governmental bodies.”
The whistleblower turned down two weeks of severance pay by refusing to sign the agreement – a decision that freed him to tell the public about ECOT’s attendance padding.
The agreement included two signature lines, one for the whistleblower, the other for Brittny Pierson, Deputy Superintendent and Chief of Staff for ECOT.
The agreement includes these provisions:
“Non-Disparagement. You agree that you have not and will not make statements to anyone that are in any way disparaging or negative toward ECOT, including disparaging remarks about individuals associated with ECOT or the services it provides.”
“Waiver & Release of Employment Claims. You, for yourself and your successors, assigns, heirs, agents and legal representatives, knowingly and voluntarily agree to waive and release ECOT, including its directors, officers, employees, representatives and agents, and its related, affiliate, and associated companies (including without limitation the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West and Altair Learning Management) (collectively, ‘Released Parties’), from any and all claims, causes of action, and liabilities of any kind, known or unknown, in law or in equity, that you had or have as of the effective date of this Agreement, and that are in any way connected with or arise out of your employment or the termination of your employment with ECOT, including but not limited to claims, causes of action and liabilities….”
Stephen Dyer, a lawyer and Education Fellow for Innovation Ohio, took issue with the release of claims provision.
“It’s truly stunning that the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West would be included in this non-disclosure language,’’ Dyer said. “The ESC is supposed to be the public’s watchdog over ECOT, not its partner in silence and secrecy.”
It is unclear whether Lake Erie West knew that it was included in the agreement.
“If the ESC knew it was included in this provision, that’s a problem,” Dyer told the news conference. “And if they didn’t, then that indicates how lax their oversight has been.”
Sandy Theis, a member of Ohio’s Charter School Accountability Project, said she personally has spoken to six people offered hush money from ECOT. Two took the money, two did not.
Dyer and Turcer filed a public records request with the ESC seeking copies of all non-disclosure agreements offered to ECOT employees from 2012-2017 and the total amount paid.
Columbus lawyer Fred Gittes echoed concerns that it is inappropriate to use public money as hush money, and he called for improvements to Ohio’s whistleblower law.
“Ohio has one of the worst whistleblower laws in America,” Gittes said. “You can only be protected if you first report your concerns to your boss or someone with authority in the company. And you have to report it in writing.”
Gittes said he has counseled many people who have considered reporting crimes their employers have committed.
“When I tell them about Ohio’s whistleblower law, most of them choose not to blow the whistle,’’Gittes said. “The heroes here are the whistleblowers.”
For more information, contact:
Stephen Dyer, Dyer@InnovationOhio.org
Catherine Turcer, CTurcer@CommonCause.org
Tyler Dillon, ProgressOhio Communications Director, email@example.com