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Inweekly Turns 20: Part 4

2015-2019

Inweekly celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. Rather than attempting to cram two decades of articles into one issue, we’ve decided to break it up and cover over our four July issues the key moments of each five years of our history.

We’ve already written on the fall of W.D. Childers, Maritime Park’s history and how newspaper earned its national reputation. This week, we share how Inweekly reconnected to its roots as a community advocate, sharing some of our biggest stories over the past five years.

We hope you enjoy this journey down memory lane.

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Return to Our Roots
By Rick Outzen

Over the five past years, Inweekly has returned to its investigative roots in being a watchdog. We’ve reported on corrupt charter schools, jail deaths, government mismanagement, injustice, cover-ups and our area’s challenge of dealing with the racist elements of its past.

Newpoint Scandal
In March 2015, we broke the news that Escambia County School District’s award-winning charter high school wasn’t as it seemed. Also, then-School Board Member Jeff Bergosh alleged Superintendent Malcolm Thomas had known of several of the allegations of altered grades, cheating on tests, harassment and mismanagement for months. With that knowledge, Thomas still had let the governor give the schools $27,253 for their high performance (“Malcolm Thomas’ Latest Headache,” 5/7/15).

Shortly after our report, State Attorney Bill Eddins announced an investigation into Newpoint Pensacola High and Newpoint Academy. Superintendent Thomas joined in the investigation, which led to the Escambia County School Board voting on May 19 to terminate the charter contracts of the two charter schools ( “Ax Falls on Newpoint,” 5/28/19). The following month, Newpoint shut down the schools and its elementary school, Five Flags Academy, without giving the teachers their final paychecks.

In the following weeks, former Newpoint employees from around the state contacted Inweekly.  They shared similar stories of mismanagement, many of which were allegedly tied to founder and owner of the Newpoint Education Partners, Marcus May. With their permission, we turned their information over to Assistant State Attorney Russ Edgar, who handled the prosecution.

In May 2016, an Escambia County grand jury indicted three entities—Newpoint Education Partners LLC, School Warehouse, Inc. and Red Ignition, Inc. The indictments were for committing aggravated white-collar crime, grand theft and money laundering, related to the theft of public education funds and charter school grant funds received by Newpoint’s Escambia County charter schools for furniture, computers, equipment and services (“Newpoint: Charges and Possible Cover-Up,” 6/29/17).

The alleged fraudulent schemes involved Newpoint-managed charter schools in Escambia, Bay, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Holmes and Pinellas counties. According to court documents, May obtained more than $1 million of public funds from a pattern of thefts from the Florida Department of Education, six school districts and 15 Newpoint charter schools.

In the end, Newpoint founder Marcus May would be found guilty of robbing the school districts of Escambia, Bay, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties for a total of $5,216,856.15, according to court documents. For his scheme to defraud school systems and support his celebrity-like lifestyle, Judge Thomas Dannheisser sentenced May to 20 years in prison and ordered him to pay back all the money he stole as well as $93,357.73 in court costs (“The Charter School Shell Game,”11/29/18).

At the sentencing, Assistant State Attorney Edgar admonished the 56-year-old May for jilting funds from children and taxpayers.

“The education of our young shouldn’t be taken away for pure greed,” Edgar said in the courtroom.

Judge Dannheisser took his comments a step further during the sentencing. The judge blamed both May and public-school officials for the unprecedented loss of millions in school funding.

“He knew the bank guards were asleep, so he walked right into the vault and helped himself to millions,” said Judge Dannheisser in a prepared statement. “In fact, if his greed was not so enormous, he might still be getting away with his actions.”

Confederate Swan Song
In December 2014, the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners voted 4-1 to remove the five-flag display, which included the Confederate flag, from county property and replace it with the U.S. flag (“Buzz,” 12/18/14).

Pointing to the U.S. flag behind his seat in the commission chambers, Commissioner Doug Underhill said, “This is the flag that is draped over the coffins of our soldiers when they are returned home. This is the flag that we all swear our oaths under. This is the flag of Escambia County.”

But Commissioner Grover Robinson had second thoughts and asked his fellow commissioners to reconsider its vote. The Pensacola News Journal’s editorial board also came out in strong opposition to the commission’s decision to remove the flags, which prompted a protest march against the daily newspaper (“From Pensacola, With Love,” 2/19/15).

In March, the county commission voted 3-2 in favor of the resolution and gave the county the option to display historical flags at county buildings that are consistent with the flags the city of Pensacola flies. District 3 Commissioner Lumon May and District 2 Commissioner Doug Underhill dissented.

Then, on June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist murdered nine African Americans during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C. Conservative Republicans in South Carolina, Georgia and across the South joined the African-American community in calling for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the government buildings.

In my Outtakes (“Let Go of the Past,” 6/25/15), I wrote, “(Governor Haley, Walmart, Sears and Mississippi House Speaker Gunn) are not asking to replace the battle flag with another Confederate flag. They are saying the time has come to let go of the past and no longer let it define us. Escambia County and the City of Pensacola should do the same.”

The day after the column went online, Mayor Ashton Hayward announced that the Confederate Flag be removed and replaced with the state flag.

“While the Confederate Flag undeniably represents a part of Pensacola’s history, to many, it is a painful symbol of racial hatred and intolerance,” he said in a press release. “I proudly celebrate our great city’s rich history, but I do not believe that we are defined by our history alone. We will always be the City of Five Flags—but now is the time for us to turn our focus to our city’s bright future.”

The decision upset some (“Confederate Cultural Clash,” 7/2/15) and set up a second debate at the county commission, since its March resolution said the county would follow the city’s lead. Rev. H.K. Matthews addressed the commission at its July meeting (“County Commission Votes Down Confederate Flag,” 7/16/15).

“And the right thing is to continue not to fly the Confederate flag, which is so hurtful, so harmful, so despicable, really, to members of the African-American community and, as you heard tonight, not only of the African-American community, but the community as a whole of people of good will,” said the Civil Rights icon. “We don’t need to continue fighting this battle. There are so many other things that need to be tended to.”

The commissioners agreed to remove the Confederate flag from the Pensacola Bay Center.

The city’s Confederate past would surface again after another tragedy. In August 2017, hundreds descended on Charlottesville, N.C., to protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The protests turned deadly when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 19 people and killing one woman, 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Locally, the Northwest Florida chapter of Indivisible organized a “Solidarity with Charlottesville” march starting at Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza and heading north to the base of the city’s only Civil War monument, “Our Confederate Dead” statue in Lee Square. Monument supporters staged a counter-protest the following week (“Which Side Are You On,” 8/24/17).

Mayor Hayward and Councilman Larry Johnson issued statements in favor of moving the statue off of city property. However, neither politician followed up on the issue (“Slipped Through His Grasp,” 8/31/17).

This year, State Rep. Mike Hill, who represents the Panhandle area, proposed a bill that would have prohibited local governments from taking down monuments, including those honoring Confederate soldiers. It went nowhere.

While he opposed the bill, Mayor Robinson said at his weekly press conference that he didn’t believe the “Our Confederate Dead” monument should be removed from city property (“Buzz,” 1/10/19), so it’s doubtful anything will change in Lee Square.

Meanwhile, several local organizers with the EJI Community Remembrance Project are working on creating a memorial remembering those who lost their lives to racial terror violence. They would like to create a historical marker in or around Plaza Ferdinand to mark the lynchings of Escambia County (“Take Them Down/Build Them Up,” 9/27/18).

Jail Deaths
Over the course of a year, the Escambia County Jail had six deaths, three of which were suicides. No one was tracking the deaths, other than Inweekly. We believed the number was alarming, and the statistics backed us up (“Jail Deaths Require Scrutiny,” 12/3/15).

Nationally, around 80 percent of all local jails had no deaths in a year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Less than 7 percent had two or more.  If a death happened in a city or county jail in Florida, there was a one in 10 chance it would happen in Escambia County, according to the statistics.

We told how inmate Rodney Jamel Berry, 53, died after having vomited and defecated on himself repeatedly for nearly seven hours. The correction officers and his fellow inmates tried to get medical help for Berry, but the infirmary would only place him on a sick call list for later in the day.

In my Outtakes (“Too Many Jail Deaths,” 12/3/15), I called out county leaders, “The Board of County Commissioners needs to quit burying their heads in the sand and deal with the jail infirmary. Six deaths are too many.”

The following day, County Administrator Jack Brown announced he had fired his director of Corrections, Mike Tidwell. The jail command, community corrections and road prison staff would report directly to his assistant county administrator, Chip Simmons.

At its Dec. 10, 2015, agenda review, Escambia County Board of Commissioners discussed the rash of deaths in the county jail. Inweekly and Rick’s Blog were brought up several times in the discussion (“Changes Are Coming to Jail,” 12/17/15).

“If I could believe the Independent News story that I read recently, I would say I’d fire half the people over there,” said Commissioner Wilson Robertson. “I hope to God none of that or most of that is not true.”

Brown said the newspaper’s reporting was accurate. The commissioners approved two new medical positions at the jail and an independent monitoring position to review the health care system at the jail and determine just how much money it would take to run an effective jail medical care program.

Fire Chief Debacle
Mayor Hayward was a fantastic pitchman for Pensacola, attracting millions of state and federal funds. His smiling face was the perfect image to let the world know that Pensacola was open for business.

Where his toothy grin failed was in operations, or more accurately, in the people he hired to run the day-to-day side of city government. Nothing exposed his failures more than the fire chief debacle that led to the city secretly paying out over half a million dollars to the chiefs weeks before Hayward handed the reins to Mayor Robinson (“Fire Chiefs Vindicated,” 1/31/19).

On Feb. 2, 2016, Assistant City Administrator Keith Wilkins and Human Resources Manager Tracy Walsh met with Fire Chief Matt Schmitt and Deputy Fire Chief Joe Glover at city hall. The pair told the chiefs that they were being placed on administrative leave effective immediately. Wilkins said the suspensions were based on an ongoing investigation. The chiefs were ordered to turn over their city-owned cell phones, radio and keys to city buildings and vehicles. Wilkins gave the men no details about the complaint filed against them (“Pensacola Fire Department Coup D’état,” 2/11/16).

Mayor Hayward hired Beggs & Lane attorney Russell Van Sickle to conduct an investigation into charges made by the city’s chief human resources officer, Edward Sisson, against the two chiefs that had filed EEOC complaints against Sisson.

Meanwhile, Inweekly uncovered that Mayor Hayward had failed to establish an independent appeal board as he had promised state lawmakers when the legislature approved the abolition of the Civil Service Board two years earlier.  Furthermore, the new appeal process had never been given to city employees and wasn’t uploaded on the city website until after Schmitt and Glover were placed on leave.

After Van Sickle delivered his report to Hayward in May (“Part 2: Inside the Report,” 6/2/16), the mayor fired the chiefs (“Part 1: Fired Chiefs,” 6/2/16). He bristled at the criticism from the city council.

“If the council was truly concerned about retaliation and the failure to follow policies designed to ensure fairness, the council would have fully supported the actions taken on May 10 to remove the former Interim and Deputy Fire Chiefs,” said Hayward. “Our administration is going to do the right thing for the employees of the city, even when that means discharging management employees.”

Schmitt and Glover filed lawsuits in federal court. A little more than 18 months after the firings, Mayor Hayward would not remember much about the report or what parts prompted him to fire the chiefs, according to court documents.

During his December 2017 deposition, Hayward said he fired the chiefs because of the “findings in the report.” However, when he was questioned about if he fired the chiefs for retaliation, the mayor said, “I don’t recall.” He had the same response for all six issues in Sisson’s complaint.

In October 2018, Hayward settled the lawsuits for $575,000 as the 2018 general election approached, without notifying the city council or city residents (“Fire Chiefs Vindicated,”1/31/19).

The fire chiefs’ attorney Rocco Calamusa, of the Birmingham law firm Wiggins, Child, Pantazis & Goldfarb, told Inweekly, “Chief Schmitt and Chief Glover are glad the matter’s been resolved. They both stand by the allegations that they were retaliated against.”

He added, “They are both glad that they stood up for what they believed was right, and with this resolution, their resignation and the payments, they have been vindicated and are ready to move on with their lives.”

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The Satterwhite Contribution
2014-19

Inweekly has been blessed with many gifted writers. Christopher Scott Satterwhite has provided a scholarly approach to his writing. It comes naturally to Satterwhite, since he’s an English instructor at the University of West Florida and teaches composition, rhetoric, public writing and literature. His interests include civil rights, music, literature, social justice, poetry and history.

Here are just a few of his contributions over the past five years:

“Punk Rock Doc,”3/19/15: Satterwhite interviewed his former mate in the punk band Tender Cobra, Dr. Bob Cross, who traveled to West Africa to battle the Ebola virus.

“A Punk Tour of Pensacola,” 6/25/15: Satterwhite attempted to write down the 40-year history of Pensacola’s punk rock scene through a tour of its many venues over the years—such as The Mix, The Nite Owl Bottle Club, Trader Jon’s and Knuckleheads.

“Daycation to Monroeville,” 7/30/15: On the debut of Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman,” Satterwhite and his family visited the literary capital of Alabama, Monroeville.

“An Interview with Folk Artist Panhandle Slim,” 10/1/15: Satterwhite talked with Scott Stanton, otherwise known as Panhandle Slim, whose paintings on pieces of discarded wood, old maps and sometimes overtop of other paintings found in thrift shops have become sought-after art.

“Drive for the Drive,” 1/25/16: Satterwhite wrote about Movement for Change founder Leroy Boyd’s fight with the Pensacola City Council to have Alcaniz Street renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

“He was Loyal to This City,” 5/12/16: He wrote a profile of John Sunday, successful businessman, the second African American to represent Escambia County in the Florida legislature and later Pensacola city councilman until 1885.

“The African Presence in ‘America’s First Settlement,’” 2/15/17: Believing that the city’s origins story was incomplete unless we recognized Pensacola’s early African presence, Satterwhite researched the African side of Pensacola’s origin that has been ignored over 450 years after Don Tristan De Luna and his colonists stepped foot on this sandy soil.

“Two Years Later,” 9/28/17: Satterwhite interviewed Tom Garner about his historic discovery of the site of Don Tristan de Luna’s settlement.

“25 Years Later,” 7/26/18: Satterwhite looked back at the anti-abortion terrorism that shook Pensacola to its core and interviews survivors of the murders of abortion providers David Gunn and John Britton.

“The Black Experience Through Music, with a Sense of Dignity,” 2/21/19: On the eve of the movie “The Green Book” winning the Oscar for Best Picture, Satterwhite tackled the history of the real “Green Book” and Pensacola native Don Shirley.