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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – In his time managing a state school improvement office, a finalist for superintendent of Columbus City Schools overrode state contractor policies to pick his preferred vendors, paid a contractor before he was legally notified of the contract award, and routinely failed to verify contractor services before payment, according to an internal audit of his office.

The never-released audit, which NBC4 obtained through a public records request, detailed George “Eric” Thomas’ time as Chief Turnaround Officer with the Georgia Department of Education. Tasked with improving the state’s lowest-performing school districts, the office was dissolved after Thomas resigned at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. He announced his resignation days after the state department received the internal audit.

Thomas sued the department and Georgia’s state school board to block the audit’s release, eventually settling for an undisclosed amount with the school board. In December 2020, the school board released a statement – attached to the beginning of the audit – declaring it took no disciplinary action against Thomas and “considers the matter closed.”

“The Board thanks Dr. Thomas for his professionalism during this matter and his passion and commitment to Georgia’s students, families, and communities,” the board’s statement read.

Sparked by allegations of mismanaged funds and workplace harassment, the internal audit did not investigate claims of discrimination, focusing only on vendor contracts, contract award procedures, hiring practices and travel reimbursements.

Columbus City Schools did not respond to multiple requests for comment and previously declined to answer whether the school board was aware of the audit’s findings before selecting Thomas as a finalist.

Final interviews with Thomas and the other two candidates — Angela Chapman, interim superintendent of Columbus City Schools, and Brian McDonald, superintendent of Pasadena Unified School District — started Monday, and a decision by the board could be made this week. Interviews are scheduled to continue Tuesday, with the board holding a special executive session before its regularly scheduled meeting.

Thomas declined an interview. Instead, he sent a statement denying all allegations in the audit and said, “The Board’s review process allowed me to respond to the audit’s false allegations and to submit substantial documentation and evidence that further refuted the audit’s claims.” He also noted that the state board “unanimously approved” the statement attached to the audit declaring it took no administrative action against Thomas and thanking Thomas for his commitment to the state.

“I have always stood by my work on behalf of the students, families and communities that I enthusiastically serve, and I am eager to dedicate myself to the mission of Columbus City Schools,” Thomas wrote.

Thomas declined to respond to a detailed list of allegations. On Tuesday, he provided NBC4 with portions of a response to the audit that he filed with the state superintendent’s office that refutes the audit’s findings.

Thomas characterized the audit as poorly conducted and said it was a result of the state superintendent’s displeasure with Thomas’ office directly reporting to the state school board instead of the superintendent.

In his response to the audit, a portion of which Thomas shared with NBC4 Wednesday, Thomas said there was additional information and evidence the auditors didn’t consider and said the audit team worked to “create a narrative of substantial inadequacies related to record keeping.”

Despite requesting an interview, Thomas said he was never interviewed for the audit but was emailed four questions by the audit team. The audit makes multiple references to statements Thomas provided and questions he declined to answer.

The offices of the inspector general and attorney general opened an investigation to determine whether Thomas violated state laws, but in 2021, the attorney general closed the investigation, finding no evidence of “prosecutable criminal conduct,” according to a letter Thomas previously gave to NBC4.

Contractors were handpicked by Thomas, former employees claim

In Georgia, like many states, when public offices enter into most contracts with outside vendors, they must complete seven steps, including identifying a need for services, finding potential suppliers, and going through a competitive bidding process.

Request for Proposals – a solicitation method in which suppliers pitch solutions to an office-identified need – bypass the typical competitive bidding process. Instead, each vendor is scored on its cost and innovation by an evaluation committee, with the highest-scoring vendor winning the contract.

The audit focused on three contractors selected through the RFP process: Josephine Hernandez-Guiterrez, Jenai Emmel and Dwight Rhodes. On paper, the audit notes, Thomas’ office followed protocol. But office employees reported to the auditors that the scores assigned to the winning vendors were compromised by Thomas’ pressure.

“I was verbally provided a list of preferred vendors from Dr. Eric Thomas,” the leader of the evaluation committee wrote to investigators. “At the time of my actions, I was a novice employee of the agency and was following the instructions of my direct supervisor. It was not until recently that I became aware this is not the method of business at the Georgia Department of Education.”

Two other employees claimed that Thomas instructed the committee which vendors he preferred, in violation of public office policy and ethical guidelines. One, in an email to auditors, said that the “climate in room was to rate some vendors higher than others” due to them previously working with Thomas at the University of Virginia or who were already working with Thomas’ office.

Rhodes, for instance, was granted a four-month contract to provide technical support to struggling schools before entering into the RFP process for two subsequent contracts. Hernandez-Guiterrez and Emmel worked in the University of Virginia’s turnaround program, which Thomas led from 2012 to 2017. 

One employee reported seeing at least two of the vendors, including Rhodes, in the Chief Turnaround Office before their contracts were approved — or even reviewed.

“It was noted during our interviews with GaDOE employees that they felt pressured and hurried in assisting Dr. Thomas with his procurement requests through his sense of urgency and knowing that he reported directly to the state board,” the audit read.

In Thomas’ response to the audit, he said that although the procurement manager encouraged evaluation committee members to modify their RFP scores to better align with others on the committee, most changes actually lowered vendors’ scores. He denied employees’ claims and claimed that one employee originally reported there was no misconduct before emailing the auditors otherwise.

Thomas also said in his response to the audit that he disclosed any prior relationships with vendors and that he knew “nearly half of the 20 organizations that submitted bids.”

Thomas paid vendor before contract was awarded, selected him for leading role

Rhodes, who was contracted to perform “the same roles and functions” as the office’s district transformation specialists, ended his first contract in June 2018 and began his second that August. For the second contract, Rhodes first billed Thomas $3,600 on July 17, according to a copy of the invoice. 

But Rhodes wasn’t supposed to know he was awarded the contract until the state sent a notice of intent – which he received two days after sending his first invoice.

A copy of Dwight Rhodes’ invoice to the Chief Turnaround Office, dated two days before he was awarded a contract. (Courtesy Photo/Georgia Department of Education)

Rhodes received $500 per day in his first, four-month stint, a daily rate that was boosted to $900 for his second and third contracts, despite no clear change in his responsibilities. The audit determined that Rhodes’ daily rate of $900 – and other contractors’ daily rates of up to $1,100 – surpassed even the most lucrative education turnaround consultant positions.

The average daily pay for turnaround consultants is about $272, according to the audit, and it ranges between $71 to $600 per day. Transformation specialists in the office made an average salary of $83,318 – about $358 each day.

In his response to the audit, Thomas asserted that, as per state policy, he had no role in the specific monetary amounts and that the state board approved all contracts that required board approval. He said most vendors’ bids exceeded those the office contracted. Thomas provided NBC4 copies of proposed vendors’ daily rates that range from $750 to $6,500, with most between $1,000 and $1,750.

“Either the Superintendent’s Audit team was negligent in their due diligence to review RFP documents or the team intentionally advanced a misleading narrative,” Thomas wrote in his response to the audit.

From July 2018 to 2019, Thomas paid Rhodes $89,100, facially on par with office employees’ salaries. But that amount was based on 99 days of work, compared to employees’ average of 233. If he worked as much as the office employees, Rhodes would have billed Thomas nearly $210,000.

When asked by auditors why he sought contracts for work that office employees were already doing, Thomas said it was because finding qualified candidates during the school year was a “huge challenge.” Thomas did not explain why, after finding Rhodes, he did not post a transformation specialist position to replace the contract.

School districts in the county Rhodes was assigned to told auditors that there were “many retired, qualified educators” from the region who would have been interested in a full-time position with the turnaround office.

Rhodes, who is still an education consultant, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

At the end of his contract, Rhodes was hired to be the office’s lead transformation specialist, an opening that office employees weren’t aware of until after the fact despite department policy requiring notification, the audit notes. His hiring also came after the minimum job qualifications were reduced from having at least seven years of educational leadership experience to at least two years of “program management experience in an educational setting.”

Thomas told auditors he played no role in the qualification changes. But the state department’s policies require hiring managers to review job openings before they are listed. An email from human resources included in the audit indicates that Thomas was given the opportunity to review the listing.

In his response to the audit, Thomas said that the previous minimum qualifications were incorrect and that human resources policy was followed through the entire hiring process.

The outgoing lead transformation specialist told auditors there were several “highly qualified” transformation specialists in the office who weren’t aware of the job opening, including one employee who was without work since his assigned district pulled out of the turnaround program.

It was human resources’ responsibility to notify employees of a position opening, Thomas said, and he said in the audit response that two office employees applied for the position. He referred to an email announcing the previous lead specialists’ departure as evidence of a notice of job vacancy.

Unverified services, inconsistent instructions

The Chief Turnaround Office entered into contracts with nearly a dozen vendors between 2017 and 2019, none of which had sufficient documentation to warrant being paid, the audit determined.

Several contractors failed to supply required activity reports and billed the office using “vague” descriptions of rendered services, the audit states, making it difficult to verify that services billed were actually completed. 

Although he made payments two months late on several occasions, Thomas appeared to approve all contractor invoices. Thomas was unable to provide auditors any evidence that he verified the work contractors claimed to have done, whether it be by cross-referencing listed dates of work with school district administrators, seeking performance metrics from districts, or reviewing receipts for travel expenses.

In his response to the audit, portions of which Thomas provided on Wednesday, he refuted the audit’s assertion that he had no evidence of service verification. He wrote that the office required daily agendas, weekly reports approved by both office staff and principal staff and a monthly report to the board of education. Thomas did not provide NBC4 with such reports.

Travel expenses for contractors, including for Rhodes, were routinely reimbursed per the terms of contracts, according to the audit. Some transformation specialists in the office were also reimbursed for travel, as was the department’s policy, but not all. Of travel costs that were reimbursed, more than a quarter of them were paid late.

Some traveling employees were originally reimbursed for commutes across assigned counties, only to be later told that reimbursements would stop. Other employees performing the same roles were never told their travel was reimbursable, the audit states.

“It seems that some employees have received reimbursement for their work-related travel while others have not, with no meaningful justification for those determinations,” the audit read.

As both the audit and Thomas’ response to the audit note, the Georgia Department of Education does not have its own travel reimbursement policy. The audit asserts that Thomas should have followed statewide policy, and Thomas asserted that the state policy didn’t apply to his office’s “different scope of work” as an “innovative model.” His response did not explain why some employees were reimbursed while others were not.