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School board chairman files FOIA request on wreck involving superintendent, moped

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Steve Walts

Steven Walts, superintendent of Prince William County schools

Prince William County School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers has filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding an August vehicle accident involving Superintendent Steven Walts and a Woodbridge man driving a moped.

Now, Sawyers said he’ll ask the school board to approve the $100.36 fee associated with his request for documents and emails related to the accident during the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 21 at the Edward L. Kelly Leadership Center in Manassas.

Sawyers has also asked school division attorney Mary McGowan to provide nine emails initially withheld from his FOIA response so the school board can review the information in closed session.

In the school division’s response to Sawyers request, FOIA officer Tanisha Holland said the emails – all correspondence between the school division lawyers, legal assistants and a representative of VML Insurance Programs – would remain sealed under an exemption to the Virginia FOIA law that protects personnel records, legal advice and legal documents from public disclosure.

Sawyers (At Large) did not immediately answer emails or phone calls for comment on the matter Wednesday.  Sawyers is one of four Democrats vying  for their party’s nomination to unseat U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, in November. The party will choose its candidate in a June 12 statewide primary.

In a Feb. 14 email Sawyers shared with local media,  Sawyers wrote to Holland to say he’d asked the school board clerk to place the FOIA fees on the board’s “consent agenda,” typically a list of noncontroversial items about which the board votes collectively at the start of each meeting.

Walts struck moped on Centreville Road

The move is unconventional and apparently part of Sawyers’ effort to find out more about the Aug. 25, 2017, crash in which Walts hit a moped and its driver in the City of Manassas. Walts was driving his school-division-owned 2006 Ford Crown Victoria when he struck the moped on Centreville Road near the intersection of Carriage Lane.

According to a City of Manassas police report, the moped driver, Maurice Jermaine Wiggins, 55, of Woodbridge, suffered “serious” injuries and was flown via helicopter to Fairfax Hospital from the scene of the crash, which occurred at 10:24 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. 

Walts was listed as having “no apparent injuries,” the report said.

Walts was heading north on Centreville Road and turning left onto Carriage Lane when he struck Wiggins’ moped, which was traveling south on Centreville Road. Attempts to reach Wiggins to learn the extent of his injuries have so far been unsuccessful.

City of Manassas police did not have additional information Wednesday about the injuries suffered by Wiggins. However, it’s not uncommon for accident victims to be taken to the hospital via helicopter, either because of their injuries or as a precaution, said Officer Charles Sharp, a spokesman for the department.

The accident report listed damage estimates to the school division’s Crown Victoria at $1,500 and the 2008 moped at $1,000, the report said.

The police report indicates no extenuating factors to the crash. Both vehicles were listed as traveling at the 25 mph speed limit when the crash occurred. The weather was clear, the road was dry and neither driver was tested for drugs or alcohol, but the report indicates both “had not been drinking.”

Walts was initially charged with reckless driving in connection with the accident but pleaded guilty in December to a misdemeanor charge of “failure to keep under control.” Walts was issued a $100 fine and paid $71 in court fees on Dec. 12, 2017, according to Prince William County District Court records.

Walts declined a request for an interview Wednesday through school division spokeswoman Diana Gulotta.

In a statement, Gulotta said “this accident was not treated any differently than any other accident involving an employee in a school division vehicle.” Gulotta also wrote that it was “an unfortunate accident” that was “properly reported to the [school] board chairman and vice chairman within minutes of it occurring.”

“In addition, the remaining school board members were notified shortly thereafter,” Gulotta said.

Walts' email: School board informed on the day of the crash

In emails Sawyers shared with the Times, Sawyers took issue with Walts’ manner of reporting of the accident and what Sawyers considered a lack of details, including that Walts was driving a school division vehicle when the crash occurred and that the other driver suffered serious injuries in the crash.

Walts emailed Sawyers and the entire school board on Jan. 3 to say that he had informed the school board of the accident back in August, on the day it occurred, via Deputy Superintendent Keith Imon and school division counsel. Imon told Sawyers and School Board Vice Chairwoman Lillie Jessie of the incident during an agenda-planning meeting on Aug. 25, which Walts missed because of the accident.

“…you were informed that I would not be participating in the conference because I had just been involved in the accident with another vehicle while operating a PWCS car,” Walts wrote. “Following that meeting, Mr. Imon, at my request, called and informed all other board members.”

Walts also wrote in that email that he “did not plead guilty. Rather, I pleaded ‘not guilty,’” that “911 and VML were promptly notified and all PWCS protocols were followed.” Walts also said he “retained and paid for [his] own legal counsel relative to the traffic charges.”

Walts email conflicts with the Prince William General District Court records regarding the guilty plea for reasons that are not clear.

Sawyers responded to Walts’ email on Jan. 13 with a long list of questions that Sawyers wrote should be considered a FOIA request. “If your staff insists on charging me for this request, I will ask the board to formally vote to waive such a fee as it is clearly not reasonable to ask a member of your own staff to look into this matter and, in effect, investigate the superintendent of schools.”

Sawyers further took issue with Walts’ request to have Imon inform the school board in Walts’ stead and wrote that he was not fully informed of the severity of the accident.

“Until I was approached by a citizen who was a witness to the scene was I even made aware that your accident was more than a ‘minor accident and everybody is okay’ nor did I understand that it involved a PWCS vehicle with what the police report described as creating $1,500 worth of damage … and damage to the moped exceeding its value of $1,000 and causing serious bodily injury to a citizen of Prince William County,” Sawyers said in the email.

Attempts to reach Jessie (Occoquan) and School Board member Alyson Satterwhite (Gainesville), the latter of whom was included in Sawyers FOIA request, were not immediately successful Feb. 14.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

     

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(1) comment

Neale

Sawyers' motives for the FOIA request are personal and unrelated to his position. Charges for the documents should be the responsibility of Sawyers, not the taxpayers.

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