A lawyer hired to help Columbus schools navigate their attendance-data scandal says he's interviewing district employees in an "independent review of the facts." State Auditor Dave Yost's office, which has been conducting its own investigation since June, says the district's lawyers are doing it to intimidate witnesses important to the case.

A lawyer hired to help Columbus schools navigate their attendance-data scandal says he’s interviewing district employees in an “independent review of the facts.”

State Auditor Dave Yost’s office, which has been conducting its own investigation since June, says the district’s lawyers are doing it to intimidate witnesses important to the case.

No matter who’s right, district taxpayers are now paying for a probe that is overlapping uncomfortably with the state investigation.

See letters exchanged between Columbus Schools and the State Auditor's office

Robert “ Buzz” Trafford, the lawyer who has been advising the district, said yesterday that he plans to submit a $95,000 bill for his firm’s work in August and September. That’s almost all of the $100,000 the school board authorized paying his firm, Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, this year.In the end, the cost will far exceed that limit.“These kinds of matters are expensive,” Trafford said.

Lawyers for the district have been trying to re-create some of the work by investigators from the state auditor’s office, Trafford said yesterday.

That office chided the law firm and the district’s administration on Tuesday, saying the parallel investigation and “not-so-subtle forms of intimidation” of district employees were interfering with the state investigation. That investigation has been going on since June and is separate from the one launched recently by the FBI.

Columbus needed an independent fact-finder to examine the matter, Trafford said. He said his findings already have disagreed with some of Yost’s initial findings of impropriety.

The state auditor announced last month that all 10 of the Columbus middle schools his team examined showed signs of “scrubbing,” or withdrawing students without lawful reason.

The district quickly disputed Yost’s findings even as it demanded more information from Yost so that it could re-create the audit. “It isn’t as if just because the auditor said it, it’s true,” Trafford said yesterday.Yost said through his spokeswoman yesterday that he can’t understand how Trafford can both dispute his findings and say the auditor hasn’t provided enough information.

Trafford said he’s not doing anything out of the ordinary.

“It is not only routine but, I think most would say, the responsibility of an entity that is being investigated to retain someone on its behalf to conduct an independent review of the facts,” he said.

“We’re not trying to conduct a complete audit, but we are trying to do some independent fact-finding so that when the time comes to make whatever decisions have to be made about policies or personnel, the district and the board have someone they can turn to that works for them that can help them understand what has transpired.”

The school board, he said, is “desperately trying to get their arms around what happened.”School Board President Carol Perkins did not respond to messages yesterday.

Part of Porter Wright’s work has included providing documents and data to state investigators and responding to the office’s subpoenas, Trafford said.

The state auditor’s office said in letters to Trafford last week that Columbus has withheld “ important documents” when it responded to subpoenas. Trafford denied that again yesterday, saying he’s never seen an entity as cooperative with an investigation as Columbus has been.

As to Tuesday’s verbal lashing by William J. Owen, chief legal counsel for the auditor’s office, about the “representatives of the administration” intimidating witnesses and making them fear for their jobs, Trafford said that is unfounded and ridiculous. He said he’s never seen an interviewee become uncomfortable during a talk with the district’s lawyers.

The state auditor’s office reiterated its witness-intimidation worries again yesterday.

“We understand that the district’s legal counsel will ask questions and need to collect information. However, when we get people calling upset and scared for their job, that’s when we have a concern,” said Carrie Bartunek, spokeswoman for the auditor.

“We’re concerned that whatever they’re asking is upsetting and scaring people. Our understanding is they’re asking what we’re asking in our interviews. We don’t understand why they need to know what we’re asking to do fact-finding.”

The auditor decided last week to break Columbus away from the statewide investigation into whether student data was manipulated, perhaps to improve schools’ standing on state report cards.

The auditor’s office said doing so was necessary because it’s likely that individuals will be referred for criminal prosecution at the end of the Columbus investigation — something that is less likely in other school districts.