By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
So in 2003, he was an easy choice for a group of lawmen tasked to recommend a candidate to become the Miami-Dade school board's first inspector general. In May of that year the board unanimously awarded Cousins, who is also a former teacher and principal, a $140,000 annual salary and the power to weed out waste and fraud.
Unfortunately Cousins no longer holds the title, thanks in part to Rudy Crew. On a recent afternoon, the former G-man met with New Times at the Panera Bread café in Weston, near his home, to talk about the superintendent. "It was not a good relationship because of his dictatorial management style," says Cousins, who speaks in a soft baritone and sports prescription sunglasses that conceal his steely brown eyes. "There was nothing Rudy Crew could do or say to intimidate me or make me violate investigative protocol."
In a civil lawsuit filed March 6, Cousins alleges Crew conspired with several others to plant unflattering stories in the press that eventually forced him out. He is among four former high-ranking school district employees who have sued the Miami-Dade superintendent in the past two years.
Crew wanted Cousins out, Cousins claims, because "I refused to allow him to interfere or control my office's investigations." According to the former inspector general's complaint, sometime during summer 2005, the superintendent became upset because he believed Cousins and law enforcement agencies were investigating him as well as school board members. The suit alleges, "Desperate to assess the scope of the criminal investigations of the upper levels of MDCPS [Miami-Dade County Public Schools], Crew approached Cousins proclaiming his belief that certain sitting school board members were engaged in serious ongoing criminal corrupt activities and claiming he had been misled into signing contracts."
A few days later Cousins took Crew to meet with agents at FBI headquarters in North Miami Beach, where he restated his allegations, according to the lawsuit. Then the superintendent offered to wear a wire in future conversations with the corrupt board members and staff. The lawsuit doesn't name the bad board members, nor will Cousins identify them. (He also declined to give New Times the names of the agents who were present at the meeting). "I viewed Crew's possible cooperation as a major breakthrough in truly cleaning up the system," Cousins says.
Following that meeting, the former inspector general claims Crew again demanded detailed information about Cousins's investigations. When he demurred, Crew allegedly "did an about-face" in regard to ratting out the school board. (The superintendent has adamantly denied he ever said he would wear a wire.)
Sometime around the end of July 2005, Crew and then-schools spokesman Joseph Garcia decided to "assassinate [Cousins's] character," the suit claims. Cousins accuses Garcia of feeding WPLG-TV (Channel 10) reporter Jilda Unruh information that the inspector general was running a private consulting business on school district time. Garcia also claimed Cousins got his job through nepotism and that his office was ineffective. Former school board employee Michael Hoover Lawson confirmed Cousins's claim in a 2006 deposition: "School board people were ... out to get Mr. Cousins and have his department shut down." (Garcia was unavailable for comment for this story.)
Unruh — who no longer works at the station — did a report detailing the allegations. "The Channel 10 piece was fantasy theater," says Cousins's lawyer, Tom Equels. "It was part of an effort on Crew's part to undermine the school board's confidence in Cousins." Reached by telephone at her Miami home, Unruh declined to comment, saying only "I stand by my story." A spokesman for WPLG also demurred. In court documents, the news station denies it defamed Cousins.
Moreover, records indicate Cousins was efficient. During his tenure, he closed 50 cases, including a criminal probe with the DEA that disclosed 22 school district employees had used health insurance cards to buy OxyContin and then sold the drug on the street. All were arrested.
On August 17, 2005, after Crew prodded them, school board members opted not to renew Cousins's contract. Then the board decided, eight to one, to end an agreement that made the Inspector General's Office independent.
The position has remained vacant. Four months ago the school board offered the job to Bob Emmons, a former assistant inspector general with the U.S. Postal Service. On April 16, Emmons declined, citing a lack of "independence." He did not respond to a request for comment.
The result is that — for almost two years — there has been virtually no independent oversight of the board's six-billion-dollar budget. Says school board member Ana Rivas Logan: "The biggest impediment to bringing back the office has been this school board and the superintendent."
If Crew's neutering of the Inspector General's Office shows a penchant for paranoia, his treatment of a handful of former employees hints at something worse — a dismissive attitude toward women and a desperate need to control access to his bosses on the school board.
One of those who has complained about the superintendent's behavior is Madelyn Schere. The soft-spoken 63-year-old University of Miami law graduate had been a district employee for more than 25 years when Crew arrived in 2004. She started out as an English and journalism teacher at Miami Jackson Senior High in 1966, left to pursue a law degree, and in 1980 accepted a position as an assistant school board attorney. In 2005 she was earning an annual $165,365, which spoke to her many accomplishments. On at least five occasions, she had been credited with saving the school district hundreds of thousands of dollars and successfully defending the school board in court, according to job evaluations in her personnel file.