Investigating Dougco's Independent Investigation

Let’s begin today’s post with a little bit of vocabulary. Merriam-Webster defines the word “independent” as:

a (1) :  not subject to control by others :  self-governing (2) :  not affiliated with a larger controlling unit <an independent bookstore>

b (1) :  not requiring or relying on something else :  not contingent <an independent conclusion> (2) :  not looking to others for one’s opinions or for guidance in conduct (3) :  not bound by or committed to a political party

c (1) :  not requiring or relying on others (as for care or livelihood) <independent of her parents> (2) :  being enough to free one from the necessity of working for a living <a person of independent means>

Some of our friends in Douglas County, however, have chosen to use a more novel definition of the term when discussing the recent results of an independent investigation into bullying allegations against Dougco school board members Meghann Silverthorn and Judith Reynolds: That anyone who finds against their accusations cannot be independent. We’re going to spend some time dissecting that claim today.

For those who do not religiously read every diatribe I post (shame on you!), here’s the five-second recap: An independent, third-party investigator looked into allegations that Silverthorn and Reynolds bullied and/or intimidated a Dougco student named Grace Davis, who was the organizer of an anti-majority protest at Ponderosa High School. The report completely cleared Silverthorn and Reynolds of any wrongdoing under district policy and the law, and even went so far as to implicate the Toxic Trio of establishment-minded board minority members in potential violations of the Douglas County School District Code of Conduct. (You can read my full musings on the report here, and the report itself here.)

The report’s conclusions were received with predictable weeping and gnashing of teeth by left-leaning activists and board members, who have spent the last 48 hours desperately attempting to backpedal away from the findings. They’ve also consoled themselves by completely shutting down the district’s ability to get anything done. Nice.

So far, their favored get-out-of-jail-free cards seem to be:

  • Silverthorn and Reynolds didn’t break any laws or policies, but what they did still made Davis “feel” like she was bullied. The report notes that there were never any outward signs that Davis felt threatened or intimidated, but she contends that the feelings were there. Apparently that is enough to justify $163,000 in taxpayer money and continued efforts to push Silverthorn and Reynolds—two duly elected members of a public body—out of their seats.
  • The report is evidence that the board’s policies are inadequate to protect students. Alternatively, they argue that the district could never have guessed that two school board members might want to meet with a high school student planning a protest. In both cases, anti-majority folks appear to have skipped the pages of the report detailing frequent student contact with the Toxic Trio themselves, as well as the pages detailing the innumerable safety concerns the protest raised among administrators and parents.
  • Some of the minutia in the report may be incorrect. For instance, Douglas County Parents, a left-leaning activist group in the district, claims that it did not, in fact, create the #IStandWithGrace hastag or the accompanying tee-shirts. This matters because… erm… well… because… I’ll have to get back to you on this one.
  • The independent investigator himself, Gordon Netzorg, was not “independent.” More specifically, he has been accused of having a last name that clearly implies he is an alien, a cyborg, or both. Oh, sorry. That’s just my imagination. Netzorg is actually accused of being biased in favor of Dougco’s conservative majority because of his proximity to a couple of big, scary millionaires who financed a good chunk of Silverthorn’s and Reynold’s school board campaigns.

That last point is the one I want to focus on today, especially because the Colorado Independent ran a typically slanted story about it yesterday. From that story:

As it turns out, until last December, Netzorg was a member of the board of directors – including board secretary – for the Alliance for Choice (ACE) Scholarship program. The next month, that program received a $1,700 contribution from Silverthorn, who was clearing out part of her campaign bank account.

Netzorg is no longer on the ACE board, on which he served for seven years, according to the group.

ACE’s founders and current directors include Alex Cranberg of Aspect Energy, Ed McVaney, a co-founder of software giant JD Edwards, and Ralph Nagel of Top Rock Liquidity, among other business ventures.

Cranberg, Nagel and McVaney were the biggest campaign contributors to Silverthorn’s 2009 and 2013 elections. Cranberg topped the list with $30,000 in contributions in the two elections; Nagel pumped in $10,000 in 2013; and McVaney gave $5,000, also in 2013…

… The connections don’t stop here. Netzorg works as an attorney for Cranberg’s business interests. He’s listed in numerous lawsuits as representing Aspect Energy and an affiliated company, Aspect Management – both owned by Cranberg.

That excerpt has everything, doesn’t it? Big numbers, scary names, and a bunch of timeline hops that make it almost impossible to follow. Let’s break it down a little, starting with Netzorg’s involvement with ACE Scholarships.

ACE Scholarships is a terrifyingly evil charity that provides privately funded K-12 scholarships to low-income kids who need better educational options but can’t afford private school tuition. The organization has partnered with such despicable schools as Arrupe Jesuit High School, the Havern School for Children with Learning Disabilities, and Crossroads School. Its low-income scholarship students do awful things like graduating on time and outperforming their traditional public school peers.

Alright, I’m being snotty. But seriously, shouldn’t we be giving Netzorg a pat on the back and a medal for volunteering to serve on the board of a charity like this?

Setting that aside, though, we have the Cranberg, Nagel, and McVaney issue. As the report says, these guys founded ACE and remain involved in its work—a fact that, again, seems to warrant respect rather than vitriol. Unless, of course, we are only allowed to recognize goodness in those with whom we agree philosophically.

But I digress. These guys did indeed fund reform-minded campaigns in Douglas County, as anyone is free to look up on the Colorado Secretary of State’s website. But… who cares? Is it really legitimate to question Netzorg’s neutrality and professional ethics because he knows people who, on their own and outside of their duties at ACE, donated toward political campaigns in Douglas County?

Given the fact that Netzorg is a highly respected attorney in Colorado who has worked on stuff way, way bigger than school board controversies, the answer to that question seems to be a resounding No. But just for the sake of argument, I decided to check Netzorg’s campaign donation history myself. Hooray transparency!

Here’s what I found: Netzorg overwhelmingly donates his money to Democratic candidates. At the federal level, he has contributed toward the campaigns of President Barack Obama, John Kerry, Ken Salazar, Ed Perlmutter, Mark Udall, and Dianna Degette. All of those, you may note, are major Democratic names. You can poke through all of Netzorg’s political contributions to federal candidates by searching for him by name in the Federal Election Commission’s database.

At the state level, Netzorg’s giving displays a similar pattern. There are a few odd Republicans thrown in there—Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, for instance—but the vast majority of his contributions have gone toward Democrats. The list includes people like Governor John Hickenlooper, former Colorado Senate President and Democratic Minority Leader Morgan Carroll, and other notable Democratic names. Also included on the list are folks like Senator Mike Merrifield, Senator Andy Kerr, Representative Brittany Pettersen, and Representative Dave Young, none of whom is what I would called a pro-reform zealot (and that’s likely being charitable).

In other words, if Netzorg has some sort of bias, that bias would appear to have worked against the conservative majority in Douglas County, not in their favor. Whoops.

There’s also the matter of the donation Silverthorn made to ACE. Careful readers will note that despite the Independent’s somewhat confusing presentation of the information, this relatively small donation came in after Netzorg left the ACE board. It’s doubtful that he would even have known it happened, and even more doubtful that Silverthorn was exercising some sort of vulpine prescience when she made the donation. She may even have been—brace yourselves, some of you are going to find this tough to believe—trying to do something good with her remaining campaign funds. Automatically ascribing malice or subterfuge to charitable giving seems, well, a little uncharitable.

As for Netzorg’s previous legal work for Cranberg’s companies, I don’t have much to say. It seems unlikely that unrelated legal work for unrelated companies that happen to be owned by someone who once sat on the same board had any influence on an investigation in Douglas County, but I don’t know the details.

Finally, I’ll add that no one on the anti-majority side seems to be able to raise a substantive counterargument about the report’s findings. They quibble over who made tee-shirts, attack charities, and hurl imprecations and accusations of bias, but they do not dispute the underlying findings. The report even details the fact that most people interviewed during the investigation, including the Toxic Trio themselves, agreed that no actual rules or laws had been broken despite accusations to the contrary. ­­­­­In other words, the anti-majority crowd seems to implicitly agree with the report’s findings.

Which begs the question: Why not just accept those findings, admit that this may have gotten out of hand, and get on with the business of educating students? Unless, of course, there’s something else going on in Douglas County…