DCS Superintendent Wants New Ethics Rules After NBC 5 Investigation - NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
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DCS Superintendent Wants New Ethics Rules After NBC 5 Investigation

Superintendent and two board members say they were unaware board president Larry Duncan accepted $245,000 in campaign donations from people connected to DCS vendor

Dallas County Schools Superintendent Rick Sorrells wants new ethics rules for DCS board members after an NBC 5 investigation revealed Larry Duncan, president of the Dallas County Schools Board of Trustees, accepted $245,000 in campaign contributions from people associated with a DCS vendor. (Published Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017)

Dallas County Schools Superintendent Rick Sorrells wants new ethics rules for DCS board members after an NBC 5 investigation revealed Larry Duncan, president of the Dallas County Schools Board of Trustees, accepted $245,000 in campaign contributions from people associated with a DCS vendor.

In a statement Sorrells said, "I did not know about the contributions (or the contribution amounts) until I was briefed last evening."

Sorrells said based on the concerns raised, he directed staff to create a new policy to present to the board.

"The policy will require trustees to recuse themselves from voting on any item where the board member has received campaign or office-holder contributions exceeding $500 in that calendar year," Sorrells said.

On Tuesday, two DCS board members also told NBC 5 Investigates they had no idea Duncan had accepted nearly a quarter-million dollars in campaign contributions from people tied the company Force Multiplier Solutions.

"I'm just surprised, that's all I could really say," said board member Paul Freeman. "I hope everything is still on the up and up for a lack of a better word."

"I don't think anybody on the board knew he was getting that much," said board member C.W. Whitaker.

Other members of the DCS board did not respond to phone calls from NBC 5.

NBC 5 Investigates discovered the large donations made to Duncan in a review of his campaign finance records.

Force Multiplier Solutions is a company with which DCS partnered on a controversial bus camera program that has put the district in financial trouble.

Experts in school finances and politics told NBC 5 large donations to board members in financially troubled school districts often warrant a closer look.

"Oh, it raises huge ethical concerns," said Don Southerland, a former FBI agent who now works as a consultant conducting accounting investigations in school districts across Texas.

Southerland said donations from vendors to school board members typically prompt him to ask deeper questions.

"Has that donation or contribution affected any decision making by the board members in selecting that vendor for contracts or work to be done by the district?" asked Southerland.

On Monday, Duncan insisted the $245,000 he received from associates of Force Multiplier Solutions did not affect his judgment.

"All of the rules and the ethics and standards of the state election code have been adhered to," said Duncan.

When asked if he should have abstained from decisions related to Force Multiplier given the size of the contributions, Duncan defended his actions.

"I followed the rules of the state of Texas for every penny of every political contribution and every penny of every expenditure," said Duncan.

Duncan's campaign records showed he donated some money he received to the campaigns of other DCS board members. The records show in 2013 he donated $19,000 to Whitaker's campaign fund and he donated $10,100 to Freeman's campaign in 2016.

In 2014, he donated $1,500 to board member Omar Narvaez. Narvaez did not return calls for comment Tuesday. Both Freeman and Whitaker told NBC 5 they were unaware where Duncan got his funding.

"The public needs to know more," said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Jillson believes the state legislature and others with oversight need to look closer at what's happened at DCS.

"I think that as people get a clearer picture of this, public officials who have oversight responsibilities will be forced to respond," said Jillson.

Southerland says the DCS board has taken a step in the right direction by hiring Alan King as its interim chief financial officer.

King is an experienced auditor of troubled school districts.

"I anticipate to see Alan King taking a very involved, deliberate role in reducing the expenses of the district and taking into account the viability of the district," said Southerland.

With a $42 million budget shortfall, DCS will have to move fast to cut expenses and stay above water.

"I think it's extremely dire at this point in time to have these types of budget shortfalls," said Southerland.

Since NBC 5 interviewed Southerland, he says he's been contacted about the possibility of working for DCS on what's called a "fraud audit" for the district.

In a statement sent to NBC 5 Tuesday, State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said, "DCS is a web of business and political relationships for self-serving bureaucrats. Larry Duncan and the DCS bureaucrats have been busted playing crooked politics instead of looking out for student safety and taxpayers' best interests. If his actions aren't illegal, they should be."

For several months, Huffines has said he plans to introduce legislation to phase out DCS.

DCS serves as the bus contractor for the Aledo, Carrollton/Farmers Branch, Cedar Hill, Coppell, DeSoto, Dallas, Highland Park, Irving, Lancaster, Richardson, Weatherford and White Settlement independent school districts.

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