NC education agency investigating claim that former staffer's texts were illegally monitored

Posted January 15, 2020 6:45 p.m. EST
Updated January 17, 2020 11:33 a.m. EST

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

— The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is investigating a claim that someone illegally monitored a former employee's personal text messages using her old work laptop, which was still connected to her phone after she retired.

The text messages were revealed during an ongoing legal dispute over the state's controversial K-3 reading contract with Istation. State Superintendent Mark Johnson has said the text messages were provided to his office anonymously and show that inappropriate discussions between former employees tainted the contract process.

An attorney for the State Board of Education confirmed the investigation when reached by email.

"The State Board understands that Superintendent Johnson’s office continues to investigate a former DPI employee’s allegations of unlawful surveillance," attorney Eric Snider wrote. "Board members have requested a further report on the status of that investigation and await additional information as soon as it is available. At this time the State Board cannot provide further comment."

Snider directed further questions to the state superintendent's office.

When reached by email Wednesday evening, the superintendent's spokesman, Graham Wilson, released the following statement: "We do not know where the text message came from. We are conducting an investigation to try to find out."

Wilson later sent a more detailed response:

"First, to ensure that blogger-conspiracies do not pass for actual news, DPI does not conduct surveillance of employees’ devices.

Second, this is still an ongoing investigation.

According to a former DPI employee, a printed copy of the text messages was slid under the office door, with no indication who did so. The contents of the text messages showed that a DPI employee on the selection committee was committing serious violations by repeatedly sharing confidential details of the procurement with an outsider who had close ties to Amplify. The press would normally call this an instance of a whistleblower shedding light on serious misdeeds by government employees.

The investigation process began shortly thereafter as an HR investigation into where this printout originated. When confronted about the content of the text messages, the DPI employee mentioned in the text messages lied to DPI HR. Following that face-to-face meeting, the DPI employee doubled down on the lie by sending a letter to DPI again denying that she leaked any information.  She took an extended leave then resigned. Before she left, she completely wiped all of her work devices.  DPI notified the Attorney General’s office. She later admitted, under oath, to the accuracy of the conversation in her deposition, and the text message was independently verified through discovery in the ongoing procurement review."   

The text messages were entered as evidence in an ongoing legal dispute between Istation and Amplify, a company that was not chosen for the reading contract. An attorney for Amplify argued at a hearing Monday that the texts should not be allowed because they were obtained illegally.

Attorneys for the state Department of Public Instruction and Istation said the text messages were provided by an anonymous source and are authentic because the former DPI employee provided them after she was subpoenaed in the case.

The state superintendent's decision to award the testing contract to Istation last summer drew a challenge from Amplify, a rival testing vendor that previously held that contract since 2013. The administrative challenge has been tied up in the state IT department, and a quasi-judicial hearing has been ongoing this week.

Johnson has repeatedly said he believes Istation is the best product for North Carolina students, teachers and parents and blamed the controversy on "the establishment political system" that prefers more of the same instead of change.

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