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Originally published March 4, 2011 at 8:05 PM | Page modified March 5, 2011 at 11:10 AM

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Former Seattle schools attorney reverses course, offers to talk with scandal investigator

The former top attorney for Seattle Public Schools, who previously refused to talk to a school-district investigator about his knowledge of problems in the district's small-business program, reversed course Friday, informing the district he is willing to provide information.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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The former top attorney for Seattle Public Schools, who previously refused to talk to a school-district investigator about his knowledge of problems in the district's small-business program, reversed course Friday and said he is now willing to provide information.

Gary Ikeda, now the state attorney general's chief legal adviser to the University of Washington, said in an e-mail to Noel Treat, the school district's general counsel, that he would speak to Treat or a representative of the School Board if given a waiver of the attorney-client privilege regarding his past dealings with district employees and others.

Treat, in a reply e-mail, advised Ikeda to "please cooperate fully and answer any questions" of the investigator, Seattle attorney Patricia Eakes.

Eakes released a report last week that criticized top district officials for failing to address serious irregularities in the small-business program.

Ikeda, who joined the Attorney General's Office in November after serving as the school district's general counsel, has come under scrutiny over how he responded to warnings about problems in the small-business program.

State auditors released a report last week on the program, questioning $1.8 million in expenses, which contributed to the School Board's decision on Wednesday to oust Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and one of her top aides.

In their report, auditors quoted Ron English, an attorney for the district, as saying he complained in 2007 to Ikeda, who was his boss, and Fred Stephens, another former district official, about misleading and false numbers provided to the School Board by Silas W. Potter Jr., who ran the program before he resigned from the district in June.

Stephens replied: "Yeah, but we need to make the program look good," English told auditors.

English said Ikeda told him: "You told your client, that's all you can do."

In Eakes' report, she cited a 2007 memo in which the district's risk manager raised concerns about the small-business program, including the potential for fraud and misuse of public funds.

The risk manager told Eakes he brought the issues to Ikeda's attention.

Eakes' report also noted that one long-term employee within the district's legal department reported that Ikeda had a "closed-door policy" and conveyed he did not wish to have problems brought to him.

In her report, Eakes said Ikeda declined to be interviewed despite a request by Treat. Ikeda "refused to do so and abruptly terminated the conversation" with her office, Eakes wrote.

In response to inquiries from The Seattle Times after the auditors' report was disclosed, Ikeda wrote in an e-mail that he was "ethically restricted" from commenting on work he did as the district's counsel.

"However, I do think clarification is necessary as to the issue of my not responding to the questions of the investigator when she called me and said that she was conducting an investigation on behalf of the school board," Ikeda wrote. "I told her that before I responded I wanted to know the purpose of the investigation. She told me she couldn't say. I asked her if our conversation was covered under the attorney-client privilege. She told me it was not. I asked her for what purpose would my comments be used. She told me that she couldn't say. I told her that in that case my comment was that the information I received regarding the small works program had come from a staff attorney. The conversation then ended."

State Attorney General Rob McKenna's office declined to comment on the matter, except to say it had been informed of Ikeda's willingness to now cooperate.

On Friday, Treat told Ikeda that because Eakes is legal counsel working for the school district, no waiver of the attorney-client privilege is necessary for him to cooperate.

"To the extent you believe otherwise, please consider this a waiver to the extent necessary for you to be interviewed," Treat wrote in his e-mail, telling Ikeda that Eakes would contact him next week.

John Strait, a Seattle University law professor and an expert on legal ethics, said if the school district waived the attorney-client privilege when Ikeda was originally asked to cooperate, he should have done so.

"The privilege doesn't belong to him; it belongs to the school district," Strait said.

Strait said based on what is in the auditors' report, Ikeda didn't adhere to his ethical duty to look out for the best interests of the district by reporting problems to top administrators and the School Board.

McKenna should be concerned about whether Ikeda understands that is also his obligation at the UW, Strait said.

Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said Strait's comments were based on "speculative information" before Ikeda gives his side.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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