Investigator becomes the story at McKinley

DCPS investigator Eastern Stewart may be onto something at McKinley Technology High School, where he has been looking at allegations of financial mismanagement and improper payments to teachers. But his investigative technique has complicated whatever case he might be making. Stewart now faces possible disciplinary action, and the entire matter is likely to removed from the school system security office and turned over to some other agency, possibly the Office of the D.C. Attorney General.

Stewart admitted Thursday that he intentionally misled former McKinley Tech teacher Thomas Ammazzalorso during a January interview when he said the DCPS chief of staff Lisa Ruda wanted to squelch the inquiry.

“She wants to cover it, push it under the rug,” Stewart is heard saying on an audio tape.”She’s trying very hard not to get this exposed.”

Stewart, who told Ammazzalorso that he’d briefed Ruda on the investigation, now says he couldn’t pick her out of a lineup.

“I have never spoken to Lisa Ruda about this case,” he told me. “If that lady’s voice came over the phone or she walked in front of me, I couldn’t tell you who she is.”

Ruda, for her part, was incensed at the suggestion that she improperly interfered with an investigation. “I’ve got my reputation,” she said Thursday. “I don’t screw up like that. Wherever an investigation lands, it lands.”

This is not the first time Stewart has spun falsehoods in interviews, a technique he says helps him determine the credibility and trustworthiness of his subjects. In this case, it’s fair to say that he learned something about Ammazzalorso, who was recording the interview without Stewart’s knowledge--a move permissible under District law but one not likely to inspire trust. Ammazzalorso, now teaching at Coolidge High School, subsequently distributed the audio recording to reporters in an attempt to turn up the heat on the inquiry.

On January 26, Stewart spun another tale during his 90-minute interview with a McKinley teacher who is a member of the board of a 501(c)(3) non-profit established by McKinley leaders in 2006 to support academic programs. Stewart wanted information about money that allegedly had been received by the organization.

In an e-mail to DCPS officials that same day, a copy of which I obtained Thursday, the teacher said that Stewart told him that I was about to publish a story about the non-profit.

“He said...that I was going to be the central component of that story. He could not do anything to protect me unless I came clean and told him everything.” The teacher wrote Stewart indicated that DCPS would be “looking for a fall guy,” which was likely to be the teacher.

All quite interesting, except I’ve never spoken to the teacher in question about the non-profit, and was working on no such story. On the day of the interview, I was writing a profile of Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Stewart said he didn’t remember the interview in the detail recounted in the e-mail, but didn’t dispute its essence.

Stewart’s boss, DCPS security chief J.W. Harris, said Thursday that Stewart was still attached to the case, but didn’t rule out the possibility of disciplinary action.

“It’s something I’m still digesting,” he said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.

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