Roy Exum: Back Off Bennett

Monday, February 5, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Ten days ago I got an anonymous email with what appeared to be about 15 legal documents attached. The one-sentence message: “The independent report released to the public was not very independent after all.” I laughed to myself because, as has always been the case, some anonymous somebody wanted to draw me in a fight where I have no reason to be. Only a fool takes an early side in a courtroom scrap - there has never been a creek that didn’t have two banks, one on either side.

The same material was obviously sent to other media outlets. Classy, huh? After the Times Free Press published a puzzling yet predictable story on Friday, one of my readers sent me a copy with the line, “Can you address this situation in a way those of us with no legal degrees can understand?” And, yes, yes I will try. I think we have a win-at-all-costs group of lawyers seeking a high-stakes payout after an Ooltewah High basketball player was raped by his teammates two years ago.

The worse these attorneys can make things appear, the greater the settlement. Knowing who the victims were, my guess is the contingence-fee structure has been established. Raise the bigger ruckus in the courtroom, or so is the belief, and the new-found audacity fuels the verdict, right?

Their target is the Hamilton County Department of Education but the bullseye is the school’s attorney, Scott Bennett. Anyone can connect the dots. They allege he coerced or influenced the efforts of an independent counsel - the capable Courtney Bullard - who studied the bullying culture at Ooltewah. Yet, I have a far-different view. In the last two years I have watched Scott Bennett carefully from “the other side” and I can name no other attorney who would have handled himself and his tasks, seemingly insurmountable at times, nearly as well.

You will recall that Attorney General Neal Pinkston and Sheriff Jim Hammond did a similar study with the exact same findings. But it is logical to believe that if either Pinkston or Hammond were to testify in front of a jury, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The reason the two lawmen will not testify is because it removes the smoke-and-mirrors from the courtroom, don’t you see?

Before the heinous rape - the worst single incident in prep athletics this community and this state has ever known - I could have cared less about public education. When the HCDE tried to hide what happened, suddenly the entire school district was exposed and the glare was so blinding I’ve rarely missed a board meeting since. Because I am somewhat fearless when I confront a bully or gross neglect and stupidity at a child’s expense, Scott Bennett and I were on different sides of the creek.

You see, as an attorney, Scott has to first and foremost represent his client. He takes his obligation to protect the school board very seriously. On the opposite side, I - as one who has been likened to “a brawler” several times - was soon inundated with key information, news tips, secrets and such.

I was shocked with how badly the school boards in the past had allowed the system to become. Leadership was so horrendous that when Rick Smith, the superintendent at the time, was found to be hiding state documents from the board, he tucked tail and ran like a cut dog.

We still have the worst metro school district in a state that ranks 40th in the United States. While I am convinced some sound steps are being taken, don’t be so naïve to believe it’s an easy turn-around. The stench, carried by the fact the County Commission has freely allowed $325 million in deferred maintenance to mount for our school buildings, and the undisputed fact the HCDE still has leadership flaws, will take years to overcome.

Curiously, Bennett and I have developed a mutual respect; we are friends instead of adversaries. He has helped me understand an important point in a scenario so often. I watched his legal dance with Smith’s attorney with due humor - what a joke - and his knowledge of the law is why he’s the school’s counsel. Trust me, he no more hampered the Ooltewah investigation than I did.

During this 24-month storm, I watched Bennett steady the ship, in choppy seas at the time, to where interim superintendent Kirk Kelly was able to do a commendable job. Scott was the voice of calm during the Woodmore tragedy and it was his hands that were on the tiller during the very arduous hiring process of new ‘super’ Bryan Johnson (It would have been easier to name a Pope!)

Let’s face it, the guy did more to hold the HCDE together than duct tape and now the flim-flam guys want to argue emails. That’s embarrassing. But what’s true is Scott Bennett, who you must constantly remember represents the district, has arguably been its key player for the past two years. I know. I have watched closely.

 Further, he lives on Signal Mountain. His children attend the high school and, as counsel for HCDE, his position has not been enviable as the community has studied the viability of forming its own school district. His behavior and demeanor in such a situation has been impeccable.

So allow me to say I think the criticism of Bennett by the attorneys representing those who were so cruelly assaulted is unfounded. I can also surmise, due to professional respect and his personal integrity, Bennett would not have tried to influence Courtney Bullard in her efforts nor could she, an upcoming and dandy attorney with Spears-Moore, be influenced in her fact-finding task. I am thinking what will be proven is that the two were only aligned for the common good and allegations otherwise should most certainly fall in view of an ethics committee.

To that end, it is most certainly proper for the two lawyers to talk throughout her investigation. Bennett knew impending litigation was coming and, as Courtney - who was hired by Bennett and the school board - made her findings, do you think they may be invaluable to Scott as he tries to gather the pieces of collateral damage that are being thrust upon him now? Please. This is elementary, my dear Watson.

The fact the two lawyers exchanged emails is totally moot as far as I can see. If I was asked to do any type of investigation of the public schools, Bennett would immediately become my go-to guy. Are you kidding me? Scott’s expertise would be invaluable and there are reams of emails to serve as evidence nobody is making anything up. I got dozens that I “scrubbed” of sender’s names and addresses (to avoid confidentiality issues) and then forwarded to the District Attorney’s office.

The fact Bennett is part of a tawdry strategy move, albeit unwise, is evidenced by the anonymous material. The rule-of-thumb in my business is anonymous emails are usually sent by cowards. Add those desperate for an extra dollar to the list. The court should hardly fall for such a ruse and the rumor that certain members of the school board are “mystified” is, in all truth, quite normal.

Scott Bennett has done far too much to suffer from some pithy attempt to discredit him in a jargon nobody can understand. The legal community of Hamilton County should strive to be far bigger than this.

royexum@aol.com



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