Best Board Money Can Buy

We’ve all learned quite a lot about the ethics and values of the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education and Superintendent Col. Casey Wardynski in the past couple of days, namely, that it was so important to contract with Pinnacle Schools and have access to its own private detention facility, aka the teepees at Elk River, that they were all willing to overlook that the only argument for the effectiveness of programs like Elk River, its CEO Karen Lee’s assurance that such had done wonders for her kid, was just a little questionable, since when they approved the contract, not one but two of her kids were out on bond facing charges of drug trafficking and possession of a small arsenal.

Today I want to talk about the campaign finances of Superintendent Wardynski’s most fawning cheerleader and the Board member usually credited for bringing him to Huntsville, Dr. Jennie Robinson, and the Pinnacle Schools’ apologist, Board member David Blair.

When Robinson ran for re-election in 2010, she raised over $60,000, far more than her opponent, and the record amount ever raised by a Huntsville School Board candidate. She had “three main backers”: “the Committee of 100, the Alabama Builders and John A. Nolan III.”

Reporter Challen Stephens calls The Committee of 100 “a group of local lawyers and business leaders.” There are also a number of doctors in the 100. Working through this list might prove interesting. They supported Robinson to the tune of $17,500. Half of David Blair’s total contributions came from this group. What return did they expect on their $20,000 investment in Blair and their total $37,500 in the District 2 and 3 races in 2010?

In the 2012 election, The Committee of 100 endorsed Laurie McCaulley for Huntsville Board of Education, District 1 and Mike Culbreath for District 5. Both won.

The Alabama Builders PAC gave Robinson $10,000 and Blair, $7,000.

What really jumped out at me, though, was the third of Robinson’s supporters, John A. Nolan III. He and his wife gave her $13,600 directly. Stephens reported that she “also received $5,500 during the runoff from North Alabama Christian Conservatives PAC, a new group. Nolan said he gave to that PAC, but does not run it.”

Why would an individual donate $13,600 (or maybe the better part of $19,100) to Robinson. What horse does Nolan have in this race?

I don’t care who Robinson’s pals are; that’s none of my business. But I am interested in her campaign backers because money is a big factor in the sucess of a campaign. While individuals donate to the Humane Society or UNICEF out of the goodness of their hearts, I simply don’t believe they make large personal donations to candidates for purely unselfish, altruistic reasons.

So I googled, and this is what I learned. In my value system, Nolan would qualify as a unsavory character, not one I’d like to owe any favors. But I think it is fairly obvious that my values are not those held by the Board and Supe.

When Nolan owned Phoenix Consulting, he could fairly have been called a corporate spy for hire. One of his own clients — Proctor and Gamble —  says his company was “out of control.” Proctor and Gamble was involved in a corporate spying scandal in 2001. Fortune magazine reported that P&G:

engaged in a corporate espionage program against competitors in its hair care business – Unilever, in particular – that even the company itself admits spun out of control. . .  After . . . senior managers discovered what the company is calling a “rogue operation,” P&G executives wrote a letter to Unilever outlining the situation.. . .

Sources say that P&G hired corporate spies through a contractor, and at least some of them worked out of a private “safe house,” nicknamed “The Ranch.” Sources say one of the companies that was employed by P&G was The Phoenix Consulting Group of Huntsville, Alabama. Phoenix was founded and is staffed by former government intelligence officers, including its president, John A. Nolan III, who served in the Phoenix Program, a covert operation in Vietnam. Nolan declined comment.

Oh, my. Next I goggled the Phoenix Program. Nauseating.

The CIA-backed Phoenix Program assassinated and jailed large numbers of Vietnamese civilians without evidence of judicial procedure. This fact was confirmed by [former CIA Dir William] Colby in an admission to Representative Reid in his July 1971 testimony before Congress. According to Colby, the Phoenix Program had resulted in the deaths of 20,587 persons as of May 1971. That number, proportionate to population, would have totaled over 200,000 Americans deliberately assassinated over a three-year period had Phoenix been conducted in the United States.

Want more? Wikipedia quotes SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.):

The Vietnam War Phoenix Program is controversial to this day. Supporters say that it was a legal and closely controlled US-Vietnamese intelligence program aimed at destroying the Viet Cong infrastructure, while the critics say that it was an illegal system of arresting, torturing and murdering innocent Vietnamese civilians.

Let’s conclude by reviewing recent local history:

  • June 2009: Superintendent Ann Roy Moore receives perfect evaluation from Board.
  • Fall 2010: Robinson re-elected to School Board.
  • January 2011. Superintendent Ann Roy Moore agrees to Board’s contract buy-out.
  • Spring 2011: Colonel Casey Wardynski recruited for Superintendent position.

18 thoughts on “Best Board Money Can Buy

  1. Pingback: Following the Money: Ferrell's Funding - Geek Palaver

  2. Past CIA donating in a local election in Huntsville shouldn’t surprise anyone any more than a NASA Rocket Scientist doing the same, we live next to the Arsonal (huge in defense of this nation) we will have all type of unique professions living here as we’ll as participating in our community. Our school system takes advantage of this fact, suggesting robotics engineers sign up to help on the volunteer website at board meetings. What other school systems are suggesting these type of things? As far as CW he had been here before with the Military and already new the area. Knowing the area and going to superintendent classes & his financial background IMHO helped him secure the job.
    CW was my second choice from the choices the boards had narrowed it down to. He was outside the normal box and got us back in shape financially. We are on track money wise. I was seriously thinking of moving my kids to private school when my child’s school was on the chopping block. I am so greatful it was
    I think sometimes people over think things. These people may not be perfect and obviously make mistakes. That there is any conspiracy here is honestly not even plausable. Don’t forget this is a community and people know each other in many ways, schools, sports, church, work, common friends and have many reasons to support the school system and people who run for office. We may not all agree about what the right course to take is but, we can all agree to support out kids education and do what we think is best. I personally don’t think this is the best way to help.

    • Thank you for raising the time of the discussion. The progress of the development of this post was curiosity about background of Board members, surprise at how much more money Robinson had raised than her opponents or candidates in other districts, surprise that one source should be an individual, and then unease at the military connection of Nolan, his connection to Fairfax VA, the headhunter’s for superintendent’s connection to Fairfax, the number of new hires from Fairfax and so on.

      True, this is a military town. Frankly, I think that either from their own military service or even just as contractors, the tendency to obey a retired colonel’s orders is potentially hazardous to our schools. There are increasingly wide reports of a culture of intimidation: a love it or leave it mentality that allows too much power to be concentrated in the supe. The purpose of having an elected board is to prevent one person from imposing his will without challenge. But all you need do is watch the rudeness with which Wardynski greets criticism to see that he is not worried about community relations. In what other position can a public servant effectively say, I don’t like one of the six criteria that will be used in my evaluation, and if if remains, you can buy out my contract — and get away with it.

      Wardynski didn’t single-handedly move the HCS from being in the red to the black; that was made possible by a one-time huge infusion of public monies. The same would have happened regardless of who the supe had been.

      What I see is a man who rushes in to situations expecting through sheer force of will that they will work out the way he wants, without considering whether sheer force of will is sufficient to get the job done — the digital initiative is the prime example. He contracted with Pinnacle to provide the same services that the HCS could have — with the exception of a remote, 24/7 detention center to which he, acting alone, can send kids for as long as he, again acting alone, sees fit. He really, really loves power.

      Even something as simple as revising the HCS website has yielded not an improved instrument, but a half-done mess. Is there anything more trying than having to cope with an inept dictator?

  3. Wish, I had a little more time to further this conversation. But, I’ve got to get to my elementary school & bar code & hand out teacher textbooks, then, Tuesday,.work a Science/Math Fair. Wednesday, tutor some 1st graders. You?

  4. Who are you ?& what in this world do you have to do with our Huntsville School System.
    ? Since you are hiding behind a blog. I wouldn’t think you have been at any Board Meetings, & would venture to guess that you don’t even have a kid in the school system.

    As for quoting stats from 1971, most of the parents with kids weren’t even born, yet.

    Furthermore, if you are seeking out communists & a detriment to our progress, I would look no further than Challen Stephens.

    Oh,.& btw. I know both Dr.Robinson & Mr. McGuniss & respect both their views. And another thing…..where are Your contributions coming from? Have you joined PTA? Are you tutoring in a school? Well I am, to the tune of 47.8 hours already this year !

    • I’m not seeking out Communists. Where did that come from?

      I guess I could get a soapbox from an antiques dealer and declare myself from the steps of the Merts Center but blogging seems the appropriate 21st century digital way to go.

      I don’t see that my personal life has anything to do with the facts of Nolan’s, but since you are interested, I receive no contributions or compensation. I have a tenth grader and a kid in college. I have been to board meetings. I pay my PTA dues, for what it is worth. When my kids were in elementary school, I volunteered daily in the school library.

      It’s astounding to me that none of you has any objections to kids being shipped off and held indefinitely in a wilderness camp where one of the counselors is out on bond for possession of 24 pounds of marijuana and small firearms, but if I say two factual things about one of Jennie Robinson’s supporters, I am an idiot, etc.

      • Am happy for an open dialouge of facts. Communists came into this discussion with quotes from 1971, via you. Current History proves that Challen & Crystal don’t always get their facts correct.

        I’m not a total fan of Dr.Wardynski, nor of the whole Board, but I do vote, volunteer &
        have kids in HSV City School System &
        therefore actually, Make a difference.
        And Yes, Your personal interests DO make a difference, especially if you are speaking for my kids, while hiding behind a blog.


        • I’m not speaking for your kids, for heaven’s sake. How do you figure that?

          Communists? I see, you mean my references to the CIA covert operations during the Vietnam War. How this translates to my seeking out Communists is incomprehensible to me, let alone what this has to do with Challen Stephens’ reporting on campaign donors, which is not interpretive or investigative reporting — just a summary of public record. Frankly the hostility this post has generated makes me think there is much more to this story.

          Why have three facts about Nolan proved so offensive? What part would you rather people not know: that he was once a CIA operative, or that he was a corporate spy, or that he contributed generously to Robinson’s campaign?

  5. Is your identity known? If not, why not. You may be totally accurate in the things you write but your shroud of secrecy is disturbing. As to what John Nolan has in the race……Grandchildren attending Huntsville City Schools….isn’t that the answer? He backed Robinson because he wanted her to win. I don’t think that’s a new concept in politics.

    • Retaliation. My identity is known to those who need to know it. Why is my anonymity any more disturbing than your own?

      If Nolan has grandkids in the schools, he thinks Robinson can deliver something that they need. And what is that? OF course he contributed because he wanted her to win. That begs the question: what did he think she could do for his grandkids if she won that her opponent couldn’t or wouldn’t.

      My posts are documented, that is, linked to reliable sources. In this case, I said three factual things about Nolan: 1. He ran a corporate spy bureau, 2. he was involved in the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam, and 3. he was Robinson’s third largest source of campaign funds. Which of these three do you dispute?

      Connect the dots any way you please. Or conclude they don’t connect. It won’t change the facts.

      • I’m not the one blogging and making accusations, I’m just responding to some items you brought up, if I were to start blogging in an effort to have my political voice heard, I most definately wouldn’t hide… have no “sources” that confirm Nolan was part of the Vietnam Phoenix Program (you do know that just because that was called the Phoenix Program and his company in Huntsville was Phoenix Consulting doesn’t mean they are/were one and the same, you know that right?) He very well could have been a part of that program, I don’t know, nor do I care. As far backing Robinson and what she could or would do for his grandkids, I don’t know, MAYBE he liked her philosophy better than Walker McGinnis’, again, I don’t know. It’s kind of like saying why back Obama and not Romney….that’s politics, you support the one who’s political view you agree with. So with regard to your question, which of the 3 I dispute, corporate spy company? Not disputing, don’t know either way, don’t care, his isn’t the only corporate spy company in the world, CIA’s phoenix program? Maybe, maybe not, you haven’t provided any FACTS on that one. Robinsons 3rd largest source of campaign funds? Yes and SO WHAT? Is he, with Robinsons help, going to start a clandestine HCS jr. spy program? The SpyROTC? Really?

        • I may be many things, but I’m not stupid. I do realize that naming his spy company Phoenix doesn’t mean that Nolan was in the CIA’s Phoenix program.

          No, I don’t think he is going to start a HCS spy organization, although his involvement in corporate spying techniques that “go over the top” according to his employers suggests to me that anyone who criticizes him better watch his or her back. I’m sure he has the resources to figure out who I am and where I am at this moment, but why make it easy for him?

          It’s the militarization of the public school system I don’t like. What do I mean by that? I mean, Colonel Wardynski’s expectation of blind obedience on the part of the Board, teachers, students and parents. It’s inappropriate and it’s dangerous.

          As far as Nolan’s involvement in the Phoenix Program in Vietnam goes, I think that if 3 sources who could be sued with as much money to lose as Fortune, CNN, and the NY Post repeat the claim, it is likely to have a basis in fact. I used Fortune magazine in the post.

          Here is what CNN says:
          “Sources say that one of the subcontractors that investigated Unilever was Phoenix Consulting Group of Huntsville, Ala. Phoenix was founded and is staffed by former government intelligence officers. Its president, John A. Nolan III, says that he and others in his company served in the Phoenix Program, a covert operation in Vietnam. When asked whether he was hired by P&G, did any work on behalf of P&G, or had any connection to this operation, Nolan declined to comment.”

          Claim is also included in articles by NY Post:

          I care who financed Robinson’s re-election bid because it was a close race that went to a run-off and she had much more money than her opponent, and money determines visibility to voters, and visibility affects name recognition, and some people think that if a candidate has lots of backing, they must be good. You don’t really think that money doesn’t matter in an election, do you?

          And I think Robinson, who chose the search firm that brought us Wardynski, is largely responsible for his being here.

          And I think he is a dangerous man and incompetent superintendent.

          Even says “Nolan began a military career as a special forces intelligence officer and was a clandestine service operational officer when he retired.”

          • As someone who personally knows John Nolan, I can tell you that while some your background information may be correct (he was a spy/spook, he did found Phoenix Consulting group, etc) it doesn’t mean he has nefarious plans for the Huntsville City School system. He has five grandchildren in HCS, volunteers in the school system, and has made large donations to the schools his grandchildren attend. That computer lab in the Chaffee Library? Funded by John Nolan. He’s a person with an interesting background. So what? Besmirching him and Dr. Robinson is a waste of time.

            • I hope you are right. Interesting isn’t the first word that comes to my mind when I think of covert CIA actions in Vietnam (remind me, what was that all for, anyway?).

              It is interesting that just presenting three facts of Nolan’s life: he was involved in the Phoenix Program in SE Asia, he was a corporate spy, and he was a big donor to Robinson can be characterized as “besmirching.”

              Maybe what is happening here is atonement.

              Maybe what I see are not connections but merely coincidences: i.e. that Robinson gets a huge donation from a retired CIA operative, and the next thing you know, Moore is out the door, a headhunter with Fairfax, VA connections is hired largely by Robinson, and we end up with Wardynski, who within six months has figured out a way to ship kids off w/o due process to a private detention center that may as well be a covert (try searching Pinnacle on the HCS website) operation.

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