Whistle-blower suit nears settlement

A board member said the hiring of a private investigator was inappropriate.
LISBON -- The Salem Board of Education is apparently close to settling a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by one of its employees.
Columbiana County Common Pleas Court Judge C. Ashley Pike announced late Wednesday afternoon the case involving Annette Howard has been resolved.
The jury had been sent home earlier with orders to return today. They were later told their service was over.
The school board has scheduled a special meeting at 8 a.m. Friday to take action on what it called a "pending legal matter."
Judge Pike had indicated that an entry ending the case should be submitted in a few weeks.
The apparent settlement came during the second day of the trial.
Former Salem schools Superintendent David Brobeck testified he reprimanded Howard, sent her home for months with pay, but no duties, then hired a private investigator to follow her.
Howard had been the assistant to Ted Cougras, the district's treasurer.
Cougras is serving a three-year prison sentence for steering thousands of dollars in contracts for overpriced or unneeded items from a Cleveland business in return for gift certificates.
Howard's lawyer, Martin Hume, has described Cougras as the district's "golden boy."
Howard said she found out that Cougras ordered an office chair and floor mats and had them delivered to his home. Instead of praise, she claimed she was the target of retaliation.
Hume said Cougras pressured and threatened Howard to destroy documents and cover up the purchase.
During the investigation, a copy of the invoice for the chair was released to area newspapers.
Brobeck testified that he reprimanded Howard for how she handed the situation. When Hume asked if the invoice was a public record, Brobeck said it was.
Brobeck said that he issued the reprimand because, "the manner in which she used the document violated board policy."
Brobeck denied he was trying to keep a lid on the investigation.
"We were trying to keep control of where the information was going," Brobeck testified.
The state audit of the district's books as part of the probe resulted in no findings against Howard.
Brobeck said he had the authority to send Howard home with pay but with no work while he decided whether to have her fired.
Didn't fire Howard
The board of education eventually voted not to fire Howard, who still works in the district's financial office. Brobeck's contract was not renewed.
Howard did not get her old job back because the board of education had eliminated it. Since the probe started, the board learned that having Cougras working as a buyer and approving the purchases was illegal.
Brobeck testified that Cougras was hired because, "we were trying to save money."
Brobeck admitted that he hired a private detective to follow Howard. There was no testimony about the length of the surveillance or any findings.
But Cynthia Rottenborn, a member of the board of education, said hiring the investigator "did not seem appropriate."
She said she did not know of the hiring until after it was done.
Howard eventually passed the information about the purchase to Rottenborn through a third party.
Howard's lawsuit asked for more than $50,000 in damages.

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