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State ethics lawyer says charter school leader or her relatives should be fired for breaking nepotism laws

BATON ROUGE — A lawyer for the state Board of Ethics asked a panel of judges last week to order the firing of Doris Roché-Hicks, CEO of Friends of King Schools, for violating nepotism laws.

If not, the lawyer said her son-in-law and sister should lose their jobs.

The state Board of Ethics has charged Roché-Hicks and her relatives with violating laws against nepotism by employing her son-in-law Darrin Cook and her sister Iris Ponson, and by signing checks to her daughter Monique Cook for consulting services.

In a hearing on Feb. 22, a lawyer for the state Board of Ethics asked a three-judge panel to order Monique Cook to repay her consulting fees and to order Roché-Hicks to pay a $10,000 fine for signing the checks.

Roché-Hicks’ attorney, Willie Zanders, acknowledged the violations in the hearing.

But he said Roché-Hicks and her family members should not be penalized for working to reopen schools after Hurricane Katrina. In fact, he argued, the difficulty in finding employees after the storm justified their hiring.

At the end of the five-hour hearing, the judges asked Zanders and the state Board of Ethics to file written arguments by March 20. It could take three months for the judges to rule on the case.

Roché-Hicks testified that she never intended to ignore the law.

“The board is not without sympathy,” said Suzanne Mooney, an attorney for the ethics board. “But there has to be a stop to the ongoing violations and a sign that it will not happen again.”

Roché-Hicks oversees two charter schools operated by Friends of King Schools. The Lens reported in 2013 that she had hired six relatives at the charter network. Three of them appeared to violate state law that prevents public employees from hiring immediate family members.

The state filed ethics charges against Roché-Hicks in 2014. But the case has dragged on, along with a nepotism case against another New Orleans charter school leader, Paulette Bruno of Robert Russa Moton Charter School.

The state laid out its case against Roché-Hicks and her relatives in the hearing.

In 2006, Darrin Cook was hired as the head custodian for Dr. King Charter School, part of Friends of King Schools.

He had been employed by the Orleans Parish School Board as a truck driver. He testified that he had been fired due to budget cuts after Katrina.

Zanders argued Cook’s job at the charter school also involved truck driving, so it falls under a particular exception in state law. But that exception applies to relatives of school board members, not the head of a school system like Roché-Hicks.

Moreover, Mooney said the job requirements were completely different.

Ponson was hired in 2006 as a hall monitor at the same elementary school. She testified that she left her job at a nursing home after Katrina to volunteer at the school. That led to her being hired by her sister’s charter organization.

“I don’t know why my sister wanted to change jobs from the private sector to a school system,” Roché-Hicks testified, “but I didn’t stop her.”

Zanders said Roché-Hicks was not involved in hiring Ponson or Darrin Cook and didn’t directly supervise them.

He also said Roché-Hicks called the ethics board to ask if they could work for her charter organization. Zanders said she was given permission as long as she wasn’t their immediate supervisor. But neither side has evidence this call occurred.

When asked why she had not followed up on this call, Roché-Hicks said she had forgotten because the body of a student at King elementary school had been found in his home after the storm.

Ethics board Administrator Kathleen Allen told The Lens in 2017 that staff do not give such opinions over the phone.

Judy Collins, head of human resources for Friends of King Schools, testified that she was in the room when Roché-Hicks made that call, but she didn’t hear what the person on the other end of the line said.

“There is an issue of credibility in whether Hicks called and got permission to hire her relatives,” Zanders said. “I do not believe that there is convincing or compelling evidence that she did not actually call.”

In 2012, Monique Cook, Roché-Hicks’ daughter and the wife of Darrin Cook, provided consulting services regarding special education at Joseph A. Craig Charter School, another school in Roché-Hicks’ charter group.

Monique Cook’s checks were signed by a principal at a different Friends of King school and by Roché-Hicks herself, according to her testimony.

Zanders argued only three people were permitted to sign checks: that principal, Roché-Hicks, and Hilda Young, the president of the charter organization’s board. Young had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was undergoing treatment at the time.

Young testified that she had given Roché-Hicks permission over the phone to sign the checks. There was no documentation of that, either.

Mooney, the ethics board attorney, asked Young if anyone else on the board could have been designated to sign the checks. “I suppose,” Young responded.

The ethics board also examined how Monique Cook got the contract with her mother’s charter school organization. Young said the board, which Roché-Hicks does not serve on, pulled her from a list of candidates, including employees.

However, Ora-Lee Wiley, the principal of Craig elementary, acknowledged that the list was created by a leadership team, and although Roché-Hicks wasn’t on that team, she was in the room when the decision to hire Cook was made.

Monique Cook testified that she was aware of state law that bans people from doing business with public agencies run by their relatives. She said she thought an exception for certified teachers in classroom jobs applied to her.

Roché-Hicks’ lawyer also called upon the Rev. Willie Calhoun, a community activist in the Lower Ninth Ward, where Dr. King Charter School is located. Calhoun described the difficulty of rebuilding the school after the hurricane and in recruiting employees after it was ready.

Zanders said Roché-Hicks had done a lot of good in the community and nothing that had came out in the hearing was worth destroying her and her relatives’ careers.

“I have been in and out of New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward for 50 years,” Zanders said. “To add this would be insult to injury.”

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