Friday, October 26, 2007

Whistleblower: Ray Lora? - Admits School Board Violated Open Government Laws

"Neely backs ex-attorney on FOIA claim"
By DAN TELVOCK
/ The Free Lance-Star
published 10.26.07

Spotsylvania's chief prosecutor says a county School Board member told him the board regularly violated the state's open-meeting law, supporting allegations by former County Attorney Mark Taylor.

In an e-mail to current County Attorney Jacob Stroman, Commonwealth's Attorney Bill Neely wrote that School Board member Ray Lora told him the board violated the Freedom of Information Act, which requires open meetings except in certain situations.

Neely wrote that King George Commonwealth's Attorney Matt Britton, who was the special prosecutor in a case last year against Superintendent Jerry Hill, told him he has the same recollection.

Lora vehemently denies speaking to Neely or Taylor about any violations. He declined to discuss conversations with Britton during the Hill investigation.

Neely's e-mail, which The Free Lance-Star obtained from a source, backs up allegations made by Taylor.

In an Oct. 9 letter, made available to The Free Lance-Star, Taylor asked the Board of Supervisors for permission to go public with statements he said Lora made to him about open-meeting violations.

Taylor, now the Accomack County attorney, said Lora told him the School Board, directed by Hill, chronically abused laws by not publicly disclosing topics discussed behind closed doors.

Neely e-mailed Stroman Oct. 15 that, "Mark Taylor's recent letter quoted in [The Free Lance-Star] had the facts straight, and Ray Lora's response was completely untrue."

School Board members and Hill said the allegations are political attacks, timed to influence the Nov. 6 elections. Two School Board members--Gary Skinner and Charles Cowsert--are running for the Board of Supervisors.

Taylor, Lora respond
Taylor said Neely's e-mail vindicates him.

"Of course, I told the truth," Taylor said. "And of course, this is political. But it is not about personalities. It is about principles. It is about telling the truth and conducting government according to the law."

Taylor's letter to supervisors states that Lora came to him during the Hill investigation. In December 2005, Britton had been named the special prosecutor for the case against Hill on election-law and obstruction-of-justice charges.

Neely was assigned the case, but he handed it off to Britton because Neely's wife is a Spotsylvania teacher. A judge eventually dismissed one charge against Hill and Britton dropped the second one.

Lora, a former U.S. marshal who now trains police officers at the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy, said the timing of the allegations is intended to create political turmoil, not open government.

"Ray Charles could see there is something funny here," Lora said. "I am telling you it is fiction. It is not true."

Neely Explains E-mail
Hill has a pending FOIA case against the county government. He alleges the county illegally blacked out portions of e-mails turned over to him. He is seeking information to be used for a possible civil lawsuit over his prosecution.

Neely was in the audience for a hearing in the FOIA case Oct. 15.

Neely said he sent Stroman the "confidential" e-mail before the hearing to give him background information. He "reluctantly" spoke to a reporter about it.

"[Lora] did make those statements to me and, as I understand it, to Matt Britton," Neely said. "Whether they were true or not, we'll never know because they were never litigated."

School Officials React
Hill said even if Lora did tell people the School Board violated the open-meeting law, it doesn't mean it's true.

"I don't know what Ray said to who, and I have no reason to disbelieve any of these people. I have no facts," Hill said. "All I can tell you is we follow very closely the state statute with closed sessions."

School Board member Marty Wilder said Neely's e-mail is "very troubling." But in his 14 years on the School Board, "never once" has it violated FOIA by discussing issues in closed session that were not on the public agenda.

"Why [Lora] may have said these things to certain individuals is beyond me," he said.

Skinner wondered why these allegations are public now.

Taylor said he asked supervisors one other time if he could make public the conversation he says he had with Lora, but was denied permission. He would not say when he made that original request.

Neely said he wasn't trying to make it public but someone leaked his e-mail to a reporter.

"I still believe it is a political ploy," Skinner said. "If an attorney thought we were misusing the power, it was [his] responsibility to bring it to the public or tell us then."

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