The Daily News threatened to put a public records request before a court of law unless a review of the Lowery Place surveillance video was provided. Said Executive Editor Bob Heist, “The Remington report certainly brings into question the findings of the previous investigation, which we felt may have been flawed at the time it was made public.”
For weeks, Okaloosa County School District resisted requests by the Northwest Florida Daily News to view a couple hours worth of video surveillance tape captured Oct. 20 at its Lowery Place administrative complex.
After several exchanges between legal counsel, and at a cost to both the district and newspaper, it was determined that retired Circuit Court Judge Thomas Remington would view the tape and chronicle its contents.
Remington’s report was presented to Executive Editor Bob Heist on Thursday afternoon, confirming information that had long since ceased to be secret.
Henry Kelley, the district’s former spokesman and director of community affairs, was in his office at Lowery Place between 1:21 and 1:58 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 20, the same day and at approximately the same times during which he sent 13 text messages deemed harassing by Destin resident Steve Menchel.
The texts in question were time-stamped between 1:16 and 2:09 p.m.
Kelley’s presence at Lowery Place that afternoon became significant only after Menchel filed an official complaint regarding the offensive texts and Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson hired an outside investigator to review the allegations.
Kelley made it clear to the investigator that he was not on official work time during the text exchange with Menchel.
“I do want to say on the record I was here in the Crestview office on Friday morning. I had a meeting around 11:30 a.m. with Superintendent Jackson and Mr. Tim Bryant, who is an elected school board member,” Kelley told Danny Graham, the Walton County attendance officer who conducted the investigation of Menchel’s complaint in early November.
“When I left the office with them, I had verbally informed Superintendent Jackson, Tim Bryant and (secretary) Martha Adams that I was on leave for the remainder of the day. That was approximately noon.”
Bryant and two others provided statements to Graham supporting Kelley’s assertion that he’d taken the afternoon of Oct. 20 off, and the investigation didn’t produce evidence to the contrary.
“Based on Mr. Kelley’s leave request form, statements from Okaloosa County School District Staff and statement from Okaloosa County School Board member, Mr. Kelley was on leave the afternoon of Oct. 20, 2017, beginning around 12:00 noon,” Graham reported in his findings.
Jackson issued a “letter of guidance” as a reprimand to Kelly on Nov. 15.
In it she states that even though Graham verified Kelley had not been working at the time the texts to Menchel were sent, “I do want to express my expectations of administrators while off duty that all communications are executed in a professional manner and should not cause harm or embarrassment to the school district.”
Questions, however, began to arise not long after Graham filed his report concerning Kelley’s declaration that he was on personal leave.
Video evidence rumor
A leave request form bearing the signatures of Kelley and Jackson was attached to Graham’s investigative report. The date 10/26/2017 appeared next to Jackson’s signature.
Okaloosa County School Board member Rodney Walker did note it is not uncommon for a leave request to be signed days after the actual personal time off is taken.
A Daily News public records request to the district turned up three emails sent by Kelley from a school district computer on Oct. 20 between the hours of noon and 2 p.m.
A persistent rumor that video evidence existed of Kelley entering and leaving his office on the afternoon of Oct. 20 was confirmed to the Daily News by Walker, who said he demanded to view its contents.
On Nov. 28, the Daily News made a public records request to review the security camera footage. It was rejected two days later by Eric Mitchell, the school district’s director of Management Information Systems.
“Pursuant to Attorney General 2015-06, surveillance tapes from a security system for a public building constitute information which reveals a security system which is confidential pursuant to sections 119.071(3)(a) and 281.301, Florida Statutes,” his email said. “Therefore we are unable to accommodate your request to review the subject material.”
The Daily News argued the rejection through School Board Attorney Jeff McInnis, and threatened to take the request to a court of law for final judgment, when a compromise was reached.
“On Dec. 14 or 15 I received a phone call from (School Board Attorney) Jeff McInnis asking if I would review a video surveillance tape,” Remington wrote in the preface to a report he completed Dec. 27. “It was a joint request from the Okaloosa County School Board and the Northwest Florida Daily News.”
When asked Friday, Remington estimated his total compensation for the review will come to about $1,000.
The Remington report
Remington’s succinct report states he viewed surveillance video tape from 7:51 a.m. until 5:03 p.m., and that at 1:21 p.m. Kelley entered the school district’s Community Affairs office.
At 1:58 p.m., Kelley left the building carrying a briefcase, the report states, “and has a very brief exchange with (a) male employee as they enter and exit the gate at the same time.”
The security camera revelations seem to have once again cast a shadow on both the school district, presently under investigation by the State Attorney’s Office, and Kelley.
A separate report issued in early December by a former federal investigator found Kelley had violated Florida’s Sunshine Law on Oct. 18 by releasing documents related to an unresolved formal complaint filed against a fellow school administrator to a television reporter.
Complaints for which no action has been taken are considered exempt from public review.
Kelley, who did not respond to a request for comment for this article, defended his actions of Oct. 20 in a statement sent to legal counsel of the Daily News prior to Remington’s review of the surveillance video.
The newspaper rejected the statement as a final declaration and demanded continuation with the agreement that Remington report on the video’s contents.
“While conceding within the statement that he was, in fact, in his office at Lowery Place during the time in question, the context of the message Mr. Kelley attempted to convey was not acceptable,” Heist said of the document received Dec. 18. “We were interested in establishing an official timeline of events with no editorializing.
“The Remington report certainly brings into question the findings of the previous investigation, which we felt may have been flawed at the time it was made public.”
Statement from Kelley
In Kelley’s statement, he admits going to his Lowery Place office on Oct. 20 and conducting school business.
He states his actions were based, at least in part, by agitation caused by the local media’s “incomplete and even slanted coverage” of issues surrounding the school district.
Kelley noted he drove from Crestview to his Fort Walton Beach office to pick up a laptop.
“It is my habit to work on emails and paperwork in order to catch up over the weekends since my job takes me out of the office,” the statement said.
Once in the office, Kelley said, he sent “a total of four emails,” including one at 12:18 p.m. to the publisher of the Daily News, “criticizing what I believe was inaccurate coverage by one of their reporters.”
Kelley also put in his statement, “It was during the timeframe that I was writing these emails that I communicated back and forth that day with Mr. Steve Menchel.”
Kelley wrapped up his missive by saying, “I consider myself to be a 24/7 employee of the school district …”
Contacted for comment regarding Remington’s findings, Menchel wondered what action Jackson should now take regarding Kelley’s leave time.
“Based on the fact that Mr. Kelley was in meetings with Superintendent Jackson in Crestview and then traveled to the Lowery Place office and sent out text messages and emails while he was on ‘leave,’ the superintendent should consider restoring his leave and placing Mr. Kelley in an on-duty status and not on leave,” Menchel said. “I doubt that will occur, since that would then put Mr. Kelley in a position of possibly violating School Board policies while on official duty.”
Questions for superintendent
Jackson, who removed Kelley from his school district spokesman’s role in November and has since been personally handling the duties, did not immediately respond to questions emailed to her Friday.
Among those questions:
Does the superintendent support Kelley’s version of the Oct. 20 events?
Has Kelley explained why he never told Graham during his investigation that he’d traveled to his Fort Walton Beach office after announcing he wouldn’t be working past noon?
Is further disciplinary action warranted in this case?