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Philly schools' legal bills for camera cases top $2 million

The Philadelphia School District has spent more than $2 million to defend itself in lawsuits resulting from a $7.5 million no-bid contract for school surveillance cameras.

The Philadelphia School District has spent more than $2 million to defend itself in lawsuits resulting from a $7.5 million no-bid contract for school surveillance cameras.

The amount covers district payments to outside lawyers in connection with four suits and brings the total cost of the fallout from the contract, including damages, to nearly $6.4 million.

The suits were filed after the Inquirer reported in November 2010 that Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman had pushed aside a Bucks County company that had begun preliminary work on the emergency contract to install the cameras, and directed that the contract be awarded to a small, minority-owned firm instead.

The district paid $2.04 million to lawyers through Nov. 15, according to documents obtained from the district Friday under the state's Right-to-Know law.

That tally does not include legal bills for a six-day trial the district lost in June involving Security & Data Technologies Inc. (SDT), based in Newtown.

A federal jury found that the district and Ackerman discriminated against SDT when she directed that the contract be awarded to IBS Communications Inc., a minority-owned firm then based in Mount Airy.

Jurors awarded SDT $2.3 million in damages.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg upheld the verdict and denied the district's request for a new trial.

In a sharply worded opinion, Goldberg criticized the district's defense of Ackerman's actions as "overly aggressive," and ordered it to pay an additional $1.3 million to cover SDT's attorney fees, costs, and interest on the damages.

"Electing to stridently defend Dr. Ackerman's illegal conduct and the events stemming from that conduct has turned out to be a costly decision for the School District," Goldberg wrote.

The SDT case was the second the district lost in federal court stemming from the 2010 report about the contract.

A district source told the newspaper that Ackerman had ordered that the contract be given to IBS.

A federal jury in 2015 found that Ackerman and another former administrator had violated the rights of Francis X. Dougherty by placing the former deputy chief of operations on leave during an investigation into leaks about the contract and recommending that the School Reform Commission fire him.

In his suit, Dougherty disclosed that he was a source for the article, and contended he was fired in retaliation for talking with reporters and contacting state and federal authorities to express concerns about the contract.

The SRC has agreed to pay Dougherty $725,000 to settle his federal claims and cover part of his lost wages and legal bills.

Last month, the district agreed to settle a federal suit filed by John L. Byars. The former procurement director alleged he was defamed, wrongfully terminated, and made a scapegoat amid the fallout over the camera contract. The terms have not been disclosed.

The fourth case, which is pending in Common Pleas Court, was filed by Augustine Pescatore, a commander in the Office of School Safety who was suspended during the camera leak probe. When he returned to work afterward, he was reassigned to the patrol division. Pescatore alleges he was defamed, demoted, and made a scapegoat over the contract.

The latest information about payments to outside law firms shows that the bulk of the $2 million - $1.9 million - was paid to Tucker Law Group LLC, which has represented the district, Ackerman (now deceased), and other former district officials in all four cases. The payments cover work performed over five years.

The remainder of the payments were made to Pepper Hamilton LLP for services relating to the camera contract, including an investigation that cleared Ackerman of wrongdoing.

martha.woodall@philly 215-854-2789