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School attorney investigated

Updated: Thursday, February 27 2014, 03:48 PM CST

Written by: Chris Papst

The name James Ellison is well known in Harrisburg. Over the past decade, he’s been heavily involved in local politics. But the powerful reputation he built took a hit recently when Chester County announced an investigation into whether Ellison overcharged tax payers as solicitor for Coatesville School District.  But Ellison had also been a school attorney in Dauphin County.  We looked into it, but there’s no active investigation into his work here.  So we did our own investigation.  But we start our story in Chester County.

"Since I've been a school solicitor, I know how things should look. Since I have worked with school districts I know how things should look. Since I've been a partner in a law firm I know how things should look. And this is not how things should look."  The “things” Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan is talking about involve, James Ellison, formerly of the Harrisburg law firm, Rhoads and Sinon.  The DA is leading a criminal investigating into whether “Coatesville taxpayers were defrauded through the payment of improper legal fees and expenses.”

"Coatesville is our poorest school district,” said Hogan. “Coatesville is our lowest performing school district. If there's any school district that couldn't afford to have money taken away from it, it's Coatesville.”

Hogan’s investigation found – in part - that Ellison charged Coatesville $2,825,595 million over the last three years.  While neighboring districts (Great Valley: $448,005/Downingtown: $390,302) paid a fraction that amount to their solicitors in the same time period. CBS-21 asked school officials what Ellison did to earn that money.  But no one would tell us.

Ellison is still Coatesville’s solicitor.  School Board President Neil Campbell defended Ellison’s employment at a board meeting last month, saying this, in reference to the investigation.

“Where we are right now, it’s very difficult for us to even think about changing generals in the middle of what we’re dealing with.” (Groans from crowd)  “When you bring in another law firm, there are so many things that need to be redone.  I don’t want to burden this district, community, and taxpayers, anymore,” explained Campbell.

Ellison’s role as a school solicitor extends beyond Chester County.  From 2005 to 2010, he worked for Central Dauphin.  Documents obtained by CBS-21, through filed Right-to-Know requests, show from the fall of 2007 to spring of 2010, Ellison charged CD at total of $1,689,972.  Meanwhile, in that same time period, Lower Dauphin paid $66,645 to its solicitor, Upper Dauphin $123,657, Susquehanna Township $148,247 and Harrisburg $390,559. We also learned that Ellison, for part of 2010, worked as outside council for Dauphin County’s poorest district, Harrisburg.  And in that time charged taxpayers $791,322.  

CBS-21 received invoices from Harrisburg School District that Ellison filed in 2010. The redacted documents show Ellison charged the district mostly for “general issues”.  A few of his other charge indicate a “conference” or “meeting”.  CBS-21 also contacted Central Dauphin to find out exactly what work Ellison did to justify his fees there, but we were told those invoices were not available.

“It should be looked into because there’s a good chance that where there’s smoke there’s fire.”  Jay Purdy is a former candidate for Central Dauphin School Board.  During his campaign in the fall, he publically called for the Dauphin County DA to join Chester County in its investigation into Ellison.
“I sure want it looked into and the taxpayer should want it looked into because there maybe money that can come back to the district,” said Purdy.

To find out why Purdy’s calls for an investigation went unanswered, we asked Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico. “We’re keeping in touch with the Chester County DA as their investigation progresses.  If necessary, we’ll take appropriate actions here.”

A few days later, we sat down with Marsico, upon his request, and showed him the bill totals we uncovered. We asked the District Attorney to comment on the billing amounts.

“It’s striking to see the numbers you’ve given me, Chris,” said Marsico.  “It’s certainly some huge numbers that bear probably some explaining.  And after talking to you, I’ll plan on having another conversation with Mr. Hogan to make sure he is aware of this and check the status of his investigation.”

Ellison no longer works for Rhoads and Sinon.  Their 17 year relationship ended in December.  The firm declined to provide CBS-21 with a statement.  But we were able to track down Ellison at a Coatesville School Board meeting.

We asked Ellison, "Can we ask you some questions about your time as solicitor at Central Dauphin?"  Ellison declined our request and quickly exited backstage.
We continued, "Can you just answer some questions on why your fees were so much higher than area school districts in Dauphin County?”
We followed Ellison through the school trying to get him on record, but all he said was this...
"At this point, I have no comment,” said Ellison.

“I wouldn’t say it’s suspicious, just that it’s deserves looking into,” concluded Purdy.  “Give us an answer – was it wrong or wasn’t it wrong.”

CBS-21 did reach out to Central Dauphin School Board members who worked with Ellison to find out if his fees raised any red flags.  Ford Thompson is the current board president.  He wouldn’t say much.  But he did tell us, “I am not calling for an investigation.  We don’t see any reason to.  I don’t see a connection between matters elsewhere and us.”  

But former board member Justin McShane, disagrees.  He would like to see an investigation into Ellison’s time as solicitor at Central Dauphin.  He said there are questions that need to be answered.

School attorney investigated

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