Coatesville school's solicitor under investigation, board president responds

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October 21, 2013 8:13:01 PM PDT
The Chester County District Attorney is calling on the Coatesville School Board to cooperate with the ongoing investigation into financial wrongdoing within the school district. Specifically, he has some pressing questions about the millions of dollars the district paid its attorney - called a solicitor - over the past few years.

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan says the Coatesville Area School Board and its solicitor, James Ellision, promised full cooperation with an ongoing criminal investigation into financial wrongdoing in the district. Instead, he says the school board and its attorney appear to be obstructing his investigation.

Hogan says, "When we request documents or when we request to speak to certain individuals, we are told that they're either not available or we're told that they can't talk to us. That's a problem in an investigation."

Hogan says the school board has also taken steps to harass and bully whistleblowers.

"It's making life difficult for them. It's calling them in and placing their jobs in jeopardy," explained Hogan.

Action News spoke with Coatesville Area School District Board President Neil Campbell Monday night.

He said he was surprised by the DA's accusations.

"The board is hiding absolutely nothing at all here," Campbell said.

During this investigation, racist and sexist text messages between the former superintendent, Richard Como, and former athletic director, Jim Donato, were made public - setting off a firestorm in the community. Hogan said Monday that there are likely to be more shocking revelations, including the possibility that improper legal expenses were paid to Ellison and his Harrisburg law firm in the last few years.

Ellison who makes $190 an hour has represented the district for several years.

"This is a school district where they apparently don't have enough money, but they're spending millions of dollars in legal fees; that doesn't make sense," Hogan said.

The district attorney confirmed there is now an ongoing investigation into Ellison and his law firm for possible criminal conduct, including obstructions of justice and whether taxpayers were defrauded through improper legal fees and expenses.

When asked why the district's legal counsel costs millions, Campbell replied, "Well, I have to say, if you look at the track record since they've been our lawyer and representing us as a law firm, they've done other things that other districts haven't had to face like closing down the charter school that was underperforming."

Campbell and the board have promised cooperation with the DA since the resignations of Como and Donato over the alleged racist text exchange.

"I think it's pretty much going to come down to where [Hogan] and I maybe have to sit down and he can express to me where his problem is," Campbell said.

A Coatesville school board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday night.

Action News reached out to the acting superintendent, the assistant superintendent, and James Ellison, but our calls and emails were not returned.

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