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Fox Chapel Area Investigation of Document Shredding Finds No Wrongdoing

By Rita Michel
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Editor’s note, posted Sept. 16, 2019: School board member Edith Cook’s participation in a school board meeting Sept. 9 was mischaracterized in an earlier version.

A legal investigation into whether the Fox Chapel Area School District improperly shredded documents concluded there was no wrongdoing by district officials. But the report by an outside legal counsel, which cost the district $10,000, did not satisfy Superintendent Gene Freeman.

“I want my name cleared,” an angry Mr. Freeman said at the end of a school board meeting Monday. “I’m going to retire in June, and I want my name free and clear before I do.” Mr. Freeman previously stated he plans to retire next year.

The developments came at the sometimes fiery board meeting, during which the independent counsel, attorney Thomas Breth, outlined the findings of an investigation into allegations made by board member Edith Cook that school district records were improperly shredded to avoid disclosure under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law.

Just what those documents are, according to Mr. Breth’s summary, which he read to a large gathering at the board meeting, is not known. Mr. Breth said the district does not maintain a log of documents that are sent out to be shredded, which is done by the district on a regular basis.

“The investigation,” he wrote, “was unable to identify a single witness or any evidence to support the allegation that school district records were improperly shredded to avoid disclosure under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Act.”

Most of the right-to-know requests that were reviewed were submitted by a reporter for PublicSource. All but one of those requests were granted, Mr. Breth said. One request that was not granted was for a log of documents that were designated to be shredded. That request is now under appeal to the state’s Office of Open Records, Mr. Breth’s report said. 

Ms. Cook questioned Mr. Breth and district officials about the scope and nature of the investigation during Monday’s board meeting. In a Facebook post on Sunday, Sept. 8, she said she had notified district officials about concerns that had been brought to her by residents. She said a number of citizens expressed a desire to prevent the shredding of what may be evidence of wrongdoing by the district and said she had also contacted the state’s auditor general.

On Facebook, Ms. Cook said she received a phone call while out of town on June 18 informing her that “Superintendent Gene Freeman allegedly pressured office staff to take part in the destruction of current and/or anticipated RTK [right-to-know] documents.” She did not identify the person who contacted her. 

She also said she received calls from community members with information and a photo of a shredding truck “suspected to contain documents inappropriately being sent to be destroyed.”

The day after the Monday board meeting, Ms. Cook’s Facebook post had been taken down. “I have complied with a directive to remove my Sunday, Sept. 8, post containing details about the document shredding investigation, but I understand that a public report will be available soon on the district website,” she wrote.

Mr. Breth said his investigation showed that documents to be shredded were disposed of according to a protocol set by the state school board association that requires documentation of a destruction order, an invoice and a certificate of destruction.

Mr. Freeman said he wants an investigation into the allegations that Ms. Cook made to the district in June as well as a review of her Facebook posts that appeared on Sept. 8 as potentially slanderous.

Although he said he found no evidence of wrongdoing, Mr. Breth said Ms. Cook declined to assist his investigation, which, he said, “hurt my ability to gain information.” 

“This could have been avoided,” Mr. Breth said of the costly investigation, “if questions were asked before allegations were made. Before comments were posted on social media calling into question the integrity of people who have devoted themselves to educating students.”