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Ethics board rules Friends of King CEO Doris Hicks must lose her job for employing relatives

The state ethics board has ordered that Friends of King Schools CEO Doris Roché-Hicks must lose her job for violating nepotism and ethics laws.

A three-judge panel ruled that Roché-Hicks broke the law 10 times by employing her sister and son-in-law and by signing checks under a contract with her daughter.

Roché-Hicks’ sister, daughter and son-in-law also violated ethics and nepotism laws, a panel of three administrative law judges ruled on June 27.

Roché-Hicks was fined $20,000. Her daughter was fined $8,921 and must forfeit what she was paid under her contract. And her sister and son-in-law must pay $2,500 each.

In 2013, The Lens reported that Roché-Hicks employed six relatives at her charter organization, including two whose employment appeared to violate ethics law.

A year later, the Louisiana Board of Ethics filed charges against Roché-Hicks and three relatives, alleging they violated nepotism and ethics laws.

The case dragged on for years. After the two sides couldn’t settle the case, the Ethics Adjudicatory Board held a hearing in February.

Willie Zanders, Roché-Hicks’ attorney, said she will remain in her position until the ethics board answers his request for a rehearing.

But lawyers for the state ethics agency oppose that request. The administrative law judges will issue another written ruling within a month and a half, according to an employee there.

Even if Roché-Hicks must step down as CEO, Zanders wrote in an email, “The ruling did not say Dr. Doris Hicks cannot move to a position lower than CEO.”

The ruling states, “It is further ordered that Doris Hicks is removed from her employment as Chief Executive Officer of Friends of King [Schools], Inc. and as Principal of Martin Luther King Charter School for Science and Technology.”

Zanders wrote, “We will fight that demotion. Dr. Hicks planed to retire in December 2018 and we are prepared to go to court to save her job and clear her good name.”

The longtime educator fought to reopen her school after Hurricane Katrina.

Her sister and daughter are still employed by the network, Zanders wrote. Her son-in-law isn’t.

Judges rejected family’s arguments

Ethics law states that the head of a public agency may not employ members of her immediate family. That includes children, spouses of children, siblings and siblings’ spouses.

There are some exceptions, including ones related to Hurricane Katrina and people who hold certain positions, but the administrative law judges concluded none applied.

In 2006, Roché-Hicks’ son-in-law Darrin Cook was hired as the head custodian for Dr. King Charter School, which is part of the Friends of King Schools charter network.

Lawyers argued Darrin Cook’s job at the charter school fell under an exception for people who had worked for the Orleans Parish school system before Katrina. But that exception applies to relatives of school board members, not the head of a school system like Roché-Hicks.

The judges said Darrin Cook’s job at Friends of King Schools didn’t match his responsibilities at the district, another requirement for that particular exception.

Roché-Hicks’ sister, Iris Ponson, was hired in 2006 as a hall monitor at the same elementary school.

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

Roché-Hicks testified that she sought verbal advice from the ethics board before hiring her sister. An ethics board administrator told The Lens it does not give advice over the phone.

In his request for a new hearing, Zanders argues Ponson and Darrin Cook shouldn’t be fined.

It is not “in the public interest to punish hardworking public employees if, in good faith, their employer told them the state had approved their hiring,” he wrote.

Multiple violations for signing checks to daughter

Roché-Hicks was charged not only with hiring family members, but also with entering into a contract with her daughter. State law also bars public officials from entering into contracts with family members.

Her daughter, Monique Cook, was hired in 2012 to do consulting. She received roughly $17,000.

Zanders argued the contract was permissible because it was for professional services, but the judges concluded the contract didn’t fall under any exception in state law.

Roché-Hicks’ $20,000 fine was levied because she signed eight checks to her daughter.

The judges ordered Cook to forfeit the money she received and to pay a fine of $8,921.

Monique Cook later became a full-time special-ed teacher at Joseph A. Craig Charter School. State law allows a family member to work at a school if she is a certified teacher and she works in a classroom.

Charter schools must adhere to state laws. The Orleans Parish School Board oversees Friends of King Schools and would be responsible for making sure the school follows the terms of its charter.

An Orleans Parish school district spokesman said the charter group’s lawyer confirmed Roché-Hicks is still serving as CEO. He said the district is aware of the request for another hearing.

“We will continue to monitor the situation until there is a final decision,” he wrote in a Friday afternoon email.*

Another local charter leader, Paulette Bruno, was charged with violating nepotism laws in 2012. The Ethics Adjudicatory Board has yet to rule on her case. A status conference is scheduled for September.

*This story was updated after publication to include comment from the Orleans Parish School Board.

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.