Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly Schools settle with former official in no-bid camera case

One week before a trial was to begin in a former Philadelphia School District administrator's civil rights and defamation case stemming from a $7.5 million no-bid contract for surveillance cameras, the case has settled.

One week before a trial was to begin in a former Philadelphia School District administrator's civil rights and defamation case stemming from a $7.5 million no-bid contract for surveillance cameras, the case has settled.

U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg filed an order Monday disclosing that a settlement had been reached in the John L. Byars case and that the Monday trial had been canceled.

The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Goldberg held a hearing last week on whether to impose sanctions on former district officials and the law firm that represents them for failing to provide documents in a timely manner to Byars.

Clifford E. Haines, Byars' attorney, alleged that the Tucker Law Group LLC, which represented the former officials, had engaged in "willful misconduct."

The Tucker lawyers blamed Haines for the delays and asked the judge to sanction his firm.

As part of Monday's ruling, Goldberg said the motions for sanctions were withdrawn.

"We have a tentative agreement, but some of the details are not falling into place the way they were represented," Haines said.

He declined to comment on the amount of money Byars will receive but said the amount "was far better" than what the district initially offered during settlement talks.

The School Reform Commission must vote to approve any proposed settlement, and the amount will be made public.

"The January SRC meeting is the earliest the settlement will be reviewed and approved," said district spokesman H. Lee Whack Jr. He declined further comment.

SRC member Bill Green, who has been critical of the amount the district has spent on outside lawyers, said he did not know the details. But he said the settlement reflected the SRC's and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s interest in resolving the case.

"We wanted to protect our rights but resolve it if it's cheaper than litigation," Green said.

Byars, a former procurement director, was placed on leave and then fired by the district in 2011. He alleged he was made a scapegoat for talking to the FBI and for the controversy that erupted after the Inquirer reported that Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman had pushed aside a Bucks County company that had begun work on an emergency contract to install surveillance cameras at 19 schools.

A district source told the newspaper that Ackerman, who is now deceased, ordered the contract to go to IBS Communications Inc., a small, minority-owned firm. The Bucks County company was on a state list of companies approved for no-bid emergency work; IBS was not.

Ackerman repeatedly denied she had directed the contract be awarded to IBS. And at various times she and others at the district said Byars had backed awarding the contract to the small firm.

In his suit, Byars said he had told officials and investigators that Ackerman made the decision to hire IBS. He said he was given the responsibility for overseeing the project.

Byars, who is African American, further alleged that he was suspended for racial reasons in late 2010 with five other administrators - all white - while the district investigated leaks about the contract.

His suit said that the district had no grounds to suspend him but "wanted to avoid suspending an entire group of white persons who could claim they were victims of a race-based reverse discrimination for speaking out against improprieties associated with a contract award to a minority contractor."

Of the six administrators suspended during the internal inquiry into leaks, four were reinstated.

In March 2011, a former head of human resources told Byars she would urge the SRC to fire Byars for operating a business website that purportedly violated the district's code of ethics.

In his complaint, Byars said that he had cleared the website with the district's law department and that his firing was part of "an orchestrated effort to discredit and harm Mr. Byars and to publicly tarnish his reputation."

In June, a federal jury found Ackerman had discriminated against the Bucks County firm by steering the no-bid contract to IBS.

The year before, jurors found that Ackerman and a former human-relations official violated Francis X. Dougherty's right to free speech by placing the former administrator on leave, then recommending that the SRC fire him.

A suit from the camera contract is still pending. Augustine Pescatore, a commander in the Office of School Safety, was put on leave during the probe into contract leaks. When he returned to work, he was reassigned to the patrol division. In his suit in Common Pleas Court, Pescatore maintains he was defamed, demoted, and made a scapegoat over the camera controversy.

So far, the district is facing $6.3 million in costs related to the camera contract, including a $725,000 settlement with Dougherty and $2.3 million in damages to the Bucks firm.

The total also includes nearly $2 million spent on outside lawyers. Of that, $1.6 million was paid to the Tucker firm through Sept. 15, according to documents obtained under the state's open-records law.