Friday, May 20, 2011

Prosecutor: Two schemed to set up School Board member

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2011 at 4:25 PM

FUNNY MONEY: Video showed $100 in an envelope destined for school board member; a ruse, a prosecutor has concluded.
  • FUNNY MONEY: Video showed $100 in an envelope destined for school board member; a "ruse," a prosecutor has concluded.

Remember the weird story floated late last summer about Pulaski County School Board member Gwen Williams — a video purporting to indicate she might have taken a bribe for some school district work? We said at the time that the story stunk and looked like a hit by a political opponent.

Pulaski Prosecutor Larry Jegley has issued his findings in the case following a sheriff's office investigation and it's a shocker, with damaging implications for members of two different school boards in Pulaski County. (Read the full document here.)

Jegley concludes that Williams was target of a scheme set up to make her look bad, run by Mills High School Principal Michael Nellums (also a member of the Little Rock School Board) and then-Pulaski School Board President Tim Clark. Williams was a pivotal vote in a raging fight on the board over recognizing the teachers union; Clark and Nellums are not friends of the union. A man named Ervin Bennett, who said he was a friend of Nellums, told investigators he portrayed the fictional "Ricky Weathers" who was taped surreptitiously in a video supposedly giving Williams money to get a school sidewalk contract. Bennett said he was given directions to Williams home by Nellums and Clark and used a script from them to make the surreptitious recording. He said they believed Williams was corrupt and wanted evidence.

Jegley said evidence didn't support the premise that a bribe was solicited, offered or accepted. "It appears that Nellums and Clark's sole purpose for this elaborate scheme was to present the other board members with the video and letter." Williams apparently thought someone was offering her financial help to get to a family member's funeral.

Jegley said it was clear, whatever their motives, that "it was an appearance of impropriety on the part of Ms. Williams that Nellums and Clark were attempting to capture rather than an actual crime." The videomaker, a private eye named Craig Tissue, came forward and said he made the video for $250 on instructions of someone named Mike. He dealt with Bennett.

Jegley concluded there was no criminal action by anyone. He added, "...we will not speculate as to the motives of Nellums and Clark; however, regardless of their motives, to resort to such juvenile cloak and dagger means to discredit Ms. Williams would verge on the ridiculous if it weren't for the sad fact that both of these men hold important positions in the education of the children of this community."

Jegley said the "entire affair is sad and has been a terrible distraction of law enforcement resources and of a beleaguered school district which has been struggling to improve."

Clark objected strenuously to characterizations in the report. He said he had not schemed to entrap Williams and had not talked with Nellums about any elements of the scheme Jegley outlined. He said he had talked with the impostor sidewalk contractor, but presumed him to be someone making a legitimate complaint about Gwen Williams. Jegley said the file will show, however, that Clark, Nellums and Bennett exchanged numerous phone calls and all three met at a restaurant at one point. Nellums, unlike Clark, apparently didn't talk to investigators.

I've sent Nellums a note seeking a comment, as well as Board member Williams. No responses so far.

Hard to imagine this type of activity isn't ground for the Pulaski Board to consider the value of Nellums' continued employment in the School District. It's a piece of information every Little Rock district voter should consider should Nellums stand for election again. The same for Clark. Honor might call for Nellums' and Clark's school board resignations, absent plausible rebuttals of Jegley's findings. Honor isn't much in evidence in all this, however.

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