St. Louis School District wins suit by former head claiming retaliation

    ST. LOUIS • A federal jury on Wednesday rejected allegations by a former elected St. Louis School Board chief that a state-appointed school board cut off her legal defense in retaliation for her outspoken criticism.

    After the trial, a lawyer for former School Board President Veronica O'Brien said she was “disappointed” and regardless of the outcome was still critical of the district, which had spent almost $300,000 through May defending itself from her lawsuit, public records show.

    “Who pays that kinds of money. . . to avoid paying $20,000?” asked the lawyer, Lynette Petruska.

    Defamation lawsuits underpin the controversy, but this week's suit focuses on a decision by the state-appointed school board to stop paying for the legal defense in a defamation case against O'Brien in 2007.

    Although O'Brien supported the state takeover of the failing district from an elected board, she quickly became a vocal critic of the appointed board's CEO, Rick Sullivan.

    In emails to elected and appointed officials, their staff, the media and “really just about to anyone who would listen to her,” she lobbied against Sullivan's confirmation and criticized him as unqualified and a racist and sexist, Petruska said during opening statements Monday morning in a federal civil trial here.

    O'Brien and her lawyers claim that in retaliation, Sullivan got a friendly lawyer to give him a legal opinion that said that the board no longer had to pay O'Brien's legal bills and “orchestrated a vote” to make it so.

    Ronald A. Norwood, one of the outside attorneys handling the suit for the district, responded that the lawyer was an expert in the issue. His opinion, Norwood said, was that the defamation case was not connected to her official position and she was warned at the outset that the district might not continue to pay. He also said that O'Brien's fellow elected board also discussed cutting off her defense.

    The district, Norwood said, defended her in a “slew” of other matters that were related to her official actions and denied legal aid to others when the suit was not related to their official position.

    The defamation suit was filed by former Vashon High School basketball coach Floyd Irons and sports booster Demetrious Johnson and claimed O'Brien lied in claims she filed while trying to obtain restraining orders against them. The suit was dropped, then later re-filed and dropped again.

    Petruska said that the final bill for what the district would have paid had it continued to defend O'Brien came to $23,000.

    A school district spokesman and Norwood could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.