Union school board member files criminal complaint against superintendent

Union County Schools Superintendent Mary Ellis
Union County Schools Superintendent Mary Ellis via WBTV

Union County school board member Kevin Stewart has formally initiated a criminal investigation into allegations against the superintendent and two other top district administrators.

Earlier this week, the school board announced that an independent council will investigate questions about the dealings of Educatrx Inc., a company owned and managed by Superintendent Mary Ellis and district administrators Mike Webb, assistant superintendent of instructional technology and operations, and Tony Burrus, chief technology officer.

Stewart filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office seeking the investigation. Sheriff Eddie Cathey has requested the assistance of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Thursday in regard to the complaints.

Accusations of a conflict of interest arose after details were released about companies.

A fourth member of the companies, Jason Mooneyham, is the vice president of public sector sales for the computer company Lenovo, which holds millions of dollars in UCPS contracts.

An On Your Side investigation first reported the accusations Monday.

Our investigation uncovered at least two transactions between UCPS and Lenovo in the time since the three administrators and Mooneyham formed their first company in April 2014.

DOCUMENT: Click here to see Stewart’s report to the Union Co. Sheriff’s Office

In March 2015, Ellis was part of a committee that voted to approve the purchase of 10,000 new Chromebook computers from Lenovo. The request was later approved by the entire Board of Education as part of the consent agenda – a list of items that board members vote to approve at once with no discussion.

Six months later, in September 2015, the board voted to approve a property transfer worth $110,000 from UCPS to Lenovo. Like the March purchase, the property transfer was also on the consent agenda.

The school district has yet to provide details of the property that was transferred despite multiple requests for the information.

“I feel that the public’s best interest would be served by having an independent law enforcement agency examine these allegations, as our contractual relationship with the school system might be construed as a conflict of interest in a full investigation,” said Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey.

DOCUMENT: Letter to Sheriff Cathey from Union Co. Board of Commissioners Chairman

Cathey formally requested the assistance of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Thursday.

A spokesman for the State Bureau of Investigation said the agency had been contacted by the Union County Sheriff’s Office but would not meet with them until Friday at the earliest.

The SBI spokesman characterized their role in examining the conflict of interest accusations as an inquiry, which may or may not result in criminal charges. Ultimately, it will be up to a criminal prosecutor to decide whether or not to file charges, the spokesman said.

“We will cooperate fully with the SBI as they proceed with this matter and offer any additional assistance they might request in connection with this investigation,” Cathey stated. “All investigative material related to the case will be forwarded to the SBI as of today.”

Also on Thursday, a spokeswoman for Lenovo confirmed the company is investigating the incident.

“Lenovo takes pride in being an ethical company, and respects procurement rules and business ethics in all customer transactions. We take this matter seriously, since we always expect Lenovo’s employees to uphold the highest ethical standards and to conduct themselves with uncompromising integrity,” spokeswoman Milanka Muecke said in a statement.

“We understand that the UCPS Board has initiated an investigation to determine the relevant facts in this matter. Similarly, Lenovo is conducting its own investigation, which it expects will continue for at least the next several days. Accordingly, we believe it would be inappropriate to comment on this matter any further, pending completion of our investigation.”

On Your Side Investigates spoke exclusively with Ellis on Monday in the wake of the accusations.

She refused to elaborate on the nature of the companies she owned with Mooneyham and the other administrators and referred all questions to a schools spokeswoman.

But an attorney for another UCPS administrator, Mike Webb, contacted On Your Side Investigates late Thursday afternoon on behalf of his client.

John Snyder, the former elected district attorney in Union County who is now a criminal defense lawyer, said his client has done nothing wrong.

“I’ve had a chance to review the documents and understand the facts that are in this case and at this point I do not see a single issue to cause the public any concern,” Snyder said. “There is nothing to (these accusations) other than people trying to score points needlessly.”

Snyder wouldn’t elaborate on the nature of the businesses, but a release from the Union County Sheriff’s Office said the firms provide technology consulting services.

“I can’t discuss that at this time, but when that is appropriate, everyone will say ‘what is the big deal?’ ” Snyder said of the nature of the businesses.

WBTV is a media partner of The Charlotte Observer.