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Suit says no-bid contracts linked to Marple firing

Members of the state Board of Education deny accusations they fired former state schools Superintendent Jorea Marple because she refused to support certain contracts.

Mountain State Justice, a Charleston-based public interest law firm, made the allegations Friday in a brief filed with the state Supreme Court.

"It is believed that the state Superintendent's refusal to support certain no-bid contracts and contracts in which certain Board members have an interest is the true reason for her termination," the court filing said.

Board member Priscilla Haden, ex-board member Lowell Johnson and Mountain State Justice attorney Bren Pomponio said they believed Marple's ouster was connected to some objections she raised to certain contracts.

Pomponio said he spoke with Marple after she was fired. He said he came away from that conversation believing that she was fired, in part, because of her position on three separate issues.

Mountain State Justice's court filing did not mention specific contracts or how board members might benefit from them. But in telephone interviews Pomponio named certain relationships some board members have with companies and non-profits. Those questions stem, in part, from a conversation with Marple, he said.

Marple did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Reached by phone Friday, board President Wade Linger said he was "flabbergasted and shocked" by the allegations, calling them "outrageous."

"I hope that nobody would even allege such a thing because it's so outlandish," Linger said. "I can categorically state that that is outrageous and simply not true."

Pomponio said relationships with the maker of the computer product Globaloria and nonprofit AmberVision, as well as Marple's opinion on the state's handling of money involved with a statewide broadband network, caused tension between the board and Marple.

Globaloria is a computer program meant to help students learn how to program. It is used in 32 schools in West Virginia, according to the product's website.

It is a product of a company called World Wide Workshop. Idit Caperton, wife of former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton, is the founder of the company.

The state has paid World Wide Workshop more than $1.1 million since 2007 in connection with Globaloria, according to state records.

Board member Gayle Manchin is listed as a member of the board of advisers for World Wide Workshop on the company's website. Board member Lloyd Jackson was at one point on World Wide Workshop's advisory council for using Globaloria in the state.    

Jackson, a close friend of former Gov. Caperton's, said he resigned from the Globaloria council when he joined the state Board of Education in 2011. He said he had no financial ties to the company.

"It had nothing to do with any decision I made," Jackson said of his connections to the company and his vote to fire Marple.

Manchin declined to comment Sunday in a phone interview.   

The Globaloria program also received funding in 2008 from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropic organization. Jackson is a trustee with the foundation, and Gaston Caperton is an honorary trustee.

Johnson's term on the board expired Nov. 4. At some point during his tenure he remembers Idit Caperton coming to speak to the board about Globaloria. He said he also thinks she requested some amount of money for the program, but can't remember how much.  

AmberVision has a system to help find missing students. Parents are asked to submit pictures of their children for use if the children should happen to go missing.

AmberVision is a nonprofit that uses technology developed by SecurLinx, a Morgantown-based biometrics company.

Board of Education member Mike Green said Sunday he is a "very minor shareholder" in SecurLinx but that nobody has ever made money off AmberVision.

"Wherever the other side is doing here, that's totally up to them," Green said.

(Green is a technology businessman who lives in Morgantown. He should not be confused with state Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh.)

Green said he helped introduce AmberVision to people at the state Department of Education.

Johnson remembers Manchin and Marple feuding over the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant. He said Marple was frustrated with the state's handling of the program and wrote a letter expressing those concerns.

Marple sent the letter in the fall of 2011 to state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, according to a press report at the time. Marple cited a "lack of progress" with the program, aimed at increasing Internet access to schools and other community centers across the state, the report states.

Later, Manchin said the board should publicly support the grant, Johnson said.

Johnson said Marple was hesitant to voice any approval for the program because it is being investigated.

Manchin was upset the department would not issue a statement in support of the grant, Johnson said.

Mountain State Justice is suing the board for allegedly violating the Open Meetings Act when it originally fired Marple on Nov. 15. The lawsuit was filed on the behalf of parents of a student in Boone County.

The board held a second meeting Nov. 29, where it eventually voted to fire Marple again. Linger read a statement listing some of the reasons he thought it was time for a new superintendent. It was eventually adopted as the official statement of the board.

Contracts were not mentioned in those reasons.

The no-bid contract allegations were part of a brief Mountain State Justice filed with the state Supreme Court Friday. The brief was filed in response to the Nov. 29 meeting, and said the board's "perfunctory" meeting was not a legitimate remedy for previous illegal actions.

The Supreme Court advised the board to respond to the initial lawsuit by Friday. In its response, the board states it did not violate any laws the first time around. If a court determines it had though, the Nov. 29 meeting was an earnest attempt to clear up those problems, according to the document.   

A 2005 opinion of the state Ethics Commission holds that a board can make up for any non-intentional mistake if the board takes "reasonable remedial measures over and above ceremonial and perfunctory ratification" of the original action.

Mountain State wants the court to reinstate Marple and halt the board's search for her replacement. The board wants the court to dismiss the case.

The Supreme Court has not ruled yet.


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