A former lobbyist for ACT Inc., the college entrance exam provider, has been awarded $500,000 to settle his lawsuit against former state schools Superintendent Steve Paine and a current assistant superintendent.
Samantha Knapp, spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration, confirmed that the Board of Risk and Insurance Management paid the $500,000.
In June 2019, lobbyist Jason Webb sued then-state Superintendent Paine, alleging that Paine repeatedly discriminated against ACT’s attempt to win the statewide standardized testing contracts and, when Webb spoke up about it, threatened ACT with a loss of business if Webb didn’t shut up.
Paine texted and called ACT Inc. officials, including then-CEO Marten Roorda, about Webb, documents in the case showed.
Webb also sued state schools Assistant Superintendent Jan Barth, who still works for the Department of Education. The litigation revealed emails in which Barth successfully urged the College Board, which sells the rival SAT test, to hire former state Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas as a lobbyist.
“Conrad will neutralize Webb and effectively dispatch him to the curb!” Barth wrote to the College Board. “Again. The sooner the better!!!”
“It will make all of our lives easier,” she wrote. “Especially Dr. Paine’s, knowing Conrad is coming on board to combat Webb.”
Paine and Barth’s stories diverged on who — the College Board or Paine — first raised the idea of hiring a new lobbyist.
Paine said in a deposition that he believed College Board officials asked for suggestions, so he recommended Lucas and one or two others. In Barth’s deposition, she said the first suggestion to hire a lobbyist came from Paine, who then asked her “regularly if this was going to be happening.”
Jan Fox, an attorney for Barth and Paine, previously argued that Webb couldn’t sue for damages that ACT Inc. itself allegedly suffered. The company never sued.
Webb contended that Paine and Barth violated his freedom of speech and interfered with his business. U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver dismissed the second claim.
In a written statement, Webb said, “This case was about an abuse of power.” Paine and Barth “used their government power to threaten and intimidate me for exercising my First Amendment rights.”
Paine, Barth and the Education Department declined to comment for this report.
ACT Inc. lodged an official bid process protest over the department awarding the College Board the $1 million annual high school standardized testing contract. The department reviewed and rejected the protest.
The agency continued pushing in the West Virginia Legislature for counties to be allowed to replace the SAT with the ACT. That drew criticism from Webb on Twitter. Barth argued that the tweets were unfair.
Copenhaver, in a January ruling on earlier motions in the case, wrote that “Paine directed Barth to compile plaintiff’s social media posts, and numerous WVDE [West Virginia Department of Education] personnel were involved in the compiling of the posts.”
The judge allowed the case to advance. The settlement means a trial won’t happen.
The Department of Education said in an email Thursday evening that the settlement doesn’t “constitute an admission of wrongdoing or liability by any party.”
“The Department is disappointed that what appear to be personal disagreements have come to this end, and we remain concerned about our future ability to confront and dispute public statements that we perceive to misrepresent the work of our agency,” department Communications Director Christy Day said in the email. “The WVDE maintains a history of longstanding working relationships with vendors and lobbyists that have been beneficial in supporting the needs of the children and families in our state.”
ACT fired Webb in 2019, shortly after he sued Barth and Paine. Webb remains a lobbyist. His current clients include Stride Inc., formerly K12 Inc., a publicly traded online education company.
Legislators and the governor passed a law this year allowing for the state’s first fully online charter schools. Stride could be chosen by one or more of those schools to provide education.
Paine resigned in February 2020, citing family issues.