Don't miss readers' comments at the bottom. lee
Three of the board members who collaborated in the punishment and still on the board are Candy Olson, Carol Kurdell, and Jack Lamb. Not one helped Mr. Erwin to unravel his charges of graft and theft in ROSSAC. They huddled with Team Lennard to make people think Mr. Erwin was crazy and then to find ways to fire him and strip him of his pension.
Ms. Olson was particularly harsh to Mr. Erwin when he came to the board. She told him that he had better have proof of what he was saying about ROSSAC graft and theft--never, "Thank you for your vigilance. We will follow up and find out what's going on."
When the jury in the Whistleblower case reported below ruled for Mr. Erwin, the board punished no one: it should have at a minimum fired Dr. Lennard, who now perches as the Supervisor of Elections, appointed by Governor Abandon-All-Hope-Ye Who-Enter-Here Crist.
But the board hunkered down after the jury rejected board-and- administration lies and ruled for Erwin and waited for the problem to go away. It did. Alas and weladay.
Now Candy Olson is up for reelection after 16 years of doing nothing but abet serially crooked administrations. She should explain her role in the Erwin scandal to the voters in her bid to die on the board. Her opponent Emmet Negrete should call her out on Candy's serial betrayal of the public trust. lee
By LENNY SAVINO firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: Dec 16, 2004
TAMPA - Redemption arrived Wednesday for Doug Erwin when a federal jury accepted his claims that the Hillsborough County School Board harassed him into an early retirement after he exposed corruption within the county's school system.
After nearly three days of deliberations, the jury awarded Erwin at least $175,000 in damages for emotional pain and mental anguish. He could get an additional $196,000 in salary for being pressured to retire 18 months before his scheduled retirement date of July 31, 2003, his attorney said.
Erwin, 59, worked in the district for 33 1/2 years, serving as principal of Robinson, Hillsborough, Plant City and Armwood high schools before a promotion to the district's general director of operations.
Beginning in November 2001, Erwin complained to the media about $560,000 in misappropriated funds, as well as leaky roofs, mold, faulty air- conditioning systems in schools and more, which he said ran up millions in costs to taxpayers. At least two district investigations triggered by Erwin's allegations documented fraud and corruption, and the Florida auditor general later verified accusations of waste and mismanagement.
After two public debates with the school board, the tapes of which were played during the trial, Superintendent Earl Lennard reassigned Erwin in January 2002 to a new job to find the millions in district losses. He was banished to a windowless room with no secretary. He announced his retirement the next day and, in July 2002, sued the district under the Florida Whistleblower's Act, claiming harassment and intimidation.
After Wednesday's late ruling, the former principal was beaming. ``The jury went above the call of duty,'' he said, ``and came back with the right verdict.''
For the past 2 1/2 years, Erwin said, he has driven 20,000 miles back and forth from his new home north of Atlanta to Tampa working with his lawyer in Tampa, Priscilla Ryan. On Wednesday night, after the verdict was announced, Erwin said he and his wife, Pat, were anxious to make the long drive back.
Lennard was present when Judge James Whittemore accepted the jury's verdict late Wednesday. ``Obviously, I'm disappointed,'' Lennard said. ``I don't believe the facts supported the ruling.''
Whittemore will decide how much money Erwin will get in lost pay for retiring early, but the judge did not set a deadline. The jury of five women and three men ruled in favor of two out of the three counts against the school board. They found that Erwin's pressure to retire violated Florida's Public Employees Whistleblower Act, as well as his First Amendment rights to speak out about the corruption. On the third count, however, the jury ruled that Erwin's treatment was not a breach of contract.
School board attorney Gregory Hearing said he will file motions to persuade Whittemore to dismiss the jury's findings. ``If there was no breach of contract,'' Hearing said, ``then there can't be a constructive discharge,'' a legal term meaning being made to work under such intolerable conditions that a reasonable person would feel compelled to resign.
By Wednesday evening, when it appeared the jury could not come to a unanimous decision on each of the three counts, Whittemore suggested both sides agree to accept majority rulings on each count to break the logjam. It worked. After the judge explained the agreement to the jury and told members to return today at 9 a.m., the jury surprised the court by asking for just 15 more minutes. Juror Geraldine Murphy said her peers embraced the majority rule substitute immediately. ``When he told us about that, we were all relieved,'' she said as she left the courthouse. Wayne Morrison, another juror, said he voted for Erwin after the jury was shown a videotape of a school board meeting where the board brought in witnesses to rebut Erwin's claims of mismanagement but did not allow Erwin to call in his own witnesses. ``It had a lot to do with the videotape,'' he said.
Since he retired, Erwin said, he has not been able to find a job as a school executive. ``School districts require three references,'' he said, ``two of which have to come from your most recent two supervisors.'' He has made at least two requests for his two former supervisors to send recommendation letters, but the recommendations never were sent, he said. On a third application, Erwin said he tried walking it through the proper channels. That didn't work either.
Reporter Lenny Savino can be reached at (813) 259-7567.