Prince William schools superintendent Steve Walts to retire in June 2021

Prince William County Public Schools superintendent Dr. Steven Walts.

Prince William County Public Schools has been told to turn over a laundry list of documents in a defamation case against the division’s superintendent.

On Tuesday, attorneys for former School Board chair Ryan Sawyers served subpoenas on the board and current chair Babur Lateef. 

Attorneys for Sawyers and Superintendent Steven Walts submitted an agreement in Prince William County Circuit Court on Friday agreeing to guidelines for handling potentially sensitive documents, which may keep them from public view.

Sawyers is suing Walts over comments the superintendent made in a May 7 video posted on Twitter. In the video, Walts said Sawyers and others “have chosen to launch a partisan and personal attack on me. As part of their attacks, they have chosen to smear and slander me for purely political purposes. While I am not concerned about these attacks directed at me, I am significantly concerned they have chosen to bully and attack PWCS students online. Their actions reflect their character.”

Sawyers has said the comments in the video, which had more than 29,000 views before being taken down, were “false and defamatory” and they “damaged Sawyers’ personal and professional reputation by alleging conduct that is reprehensible to him as a former school board chairman, businessperson, coach and father.”

Walts tried to have the $2.3 million lawsuit tossed out, saying the statements were opinions and not allegations of fact, but a judge ruled in November that the case could move to trial.

The subpoenas seek all communications about the video between March 1 and May 31, 2020, any related documents provided to the School Board about it and any drafts of what Walts said in the video.

It also seeks all planning documents related to the board’s May 6, 2020, meeting and any documents produced by any Prince William County Public Schools employee repeating or restating any of the statements Walts made in the video.

The subpoena specifically asks for all communications sent or received regarding the video from March 1 to May 31, 2020, by Walts, Lateef, board members Lisa Zargarpur, Lillie Jessie, Jennifer Wall, Adele Jackson, Justin Wilk, Loree Williams and Diane Raulston; spokeswoman Diana Gulotta; Associate Superintendent Matthew Guilfoyle, and Deputy Superintendent Keith Imon.

Attorneys are also seeking information on who had access to the @SuperPWCS Twitter and Instagram accounts and all direct messages sent or received on the account regarding Sawyers or Guy Morgan, a Brentsville resident who complained about Walts’ messages on the account.

Sawyers was elected at-large chair of the board in 2015. The imbroglio with Walts has been ongoing since Sawyers called on Walts to resign over the way he handled the aftermath of an August 2017 car wreck. Walts denied any wrongdoing and refused to step aside. Last year, Walts announced he would retire when his contract expires July 1.

The May 7 video was posted after the school system received complaints regarding more than 20,000 private Twitter messages between Walts and students. Walts, in taking down the Twitter account, said other school system employees had access to the account and it wasn’t a personal account.

The school division paid $110,776 to law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP for an investigation into complaints about Walts’ use of the account. The results of the investigation were presented to the board in July, but the presentation remains confidential because it involves a personnel matter.

The school division was initially included in the defamation lawsuit, but Sawyers later dropped it from the case.

Sawyers’ subpoenas also seek communications from 2017 about his legal actions against Walts and division counsel Mary McGowan seeking access to the emails of his predecessor as board chair. 

The agreement filed Friday allows either side in the case to label documents as “confidential” or “attorney’s eyes only” to keep them from being publicly available. The agreement said either Walts or Sawyers can mark documents as such and can object to the other party’s designation. If either party objects on certain documents, a hearing would determine their status.

To receive the designation, a document must contain highly sensitive personal information, highly sensitive personnel information or confidential business practices. Examples included in the agreement were names of minor children, medical or psychiatric information and personnel performance or discipline.

No trial date has been set in the case. Lateef and the board must produce the documents by noon on March 23.

 

Nolan Stout covers Prince William County. Reach him at nstout@insidenova.com or @TheNolanStout on Facebook and Twitter.

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