BROOKSVILLE — Hernando School Board members haven't decided whether to hire an in-house attorney or contract outside services, but they do know who their top three candidates are.
Board members will have face-to-face interviews next month with the three finalists: Denise Lyn of Inverness, Richard Withers of Apopka and representatives from McClain, Alfonso, Meeker & Dunn, the Pasco law firm currently serving as legal counsel on a short-term contract.
And when they meet with Withers, a senior attorney at an Orlando firm who wants to serve the Hernando board as an in-house counsel, they very well might have questions about a couple of situations in his past, including his mysterious and abrupt departure four years ago from the Collier County school district.
"I'm happy to answer them," the 64-year-old Apopka resident told the Tampa Bay Times in a phone interview. "It's a wild tale."
Withers wasn't talking in the fall of 2008, though, not even to refute allegations by a Collier School Board member that he had betrayed his bosses.
The veteran lawyer with years of education law experience joined the district in July 2004 and got a three-year contract extension in 2006. In September 2008, then-School Board member Steve Donovan told the Naples Daily News that district officials were investigating Withers and that he had been placed on leave.
Donovan alleged that Withers provided helpful information to the lawyer representing the district's former superintendent Ray Baker, who had sued the board for wrongful termination. The board agreed to settle the suit about four months earlier.
When the Daily News inquired, other board members declined to comment, and district officials would only say that Withers was on personal leave.
Five days after the story appeared, they confirmed that Withers had asked to be released from his contract so he could go to work in the private sector.
About two weeks later, the board voted unanimously — and, on the advice of their attorney, without discussion — to release Withers from his contract.
Donovan stood by the allegations when contacted by the Times this week.
"If I had to hire him, I would not," Donovan said. He declined to comment further.
Withers says the allegations are "absolutely untrue." As for rumors circulating at the time that there may have been other reasons for an investigation, he said, "If there was anything, they didn't bother to tell me."
The reason board members used to fire Baker and deny paying him the balance of his contract was specious at best, Withers said. He said he was directed by the board not to settle the case, but he knew the suit would likely end in a deal.
There were also allegations that the board, in the process of firing Baker and hiring his successor, had violated open government laws, Withers said. He worried that could be an issue if board members were called to testify.
That doesn't mean he helped Baker, though, he said.
"I'm a litigator. I don't give aid and comfort to the enemy," he said. "My whole career is based on fighting honorably, but still fighting. Baker would still have to prove his case."
Still, Withers said he was relieved when the board relented and agreed to settle, paying Baker the $550,000 he was owed.
By then, Withers said, he and his wife had decided they wanted to move back to Central Florida to be closer to their daughters and grandchildren. As soon as he finished work on one more major task — a local referendum related to school taxes — Withers told the superintendent he wanted out. He would soon be working with an Orlando firm to provide legal services to two school districts.
One of the two letters of recommendation Withers submitted with his Hernando application is from Baker, who described the attorney as energetic and well informed.
"(H)e provided me and the board with quality counsel and advice on everything from simple agenda questions to highly-complicated legal matters," Baker wrote.
The other is from John Ruis, superintendent of Nassau County schools, where Withers served as board counsel for about a decade prior to moving to Collier.
He saw some controversy there, too. In 2001, the NAACP branch called for Withers' resignation for joining the League of the South, a Southern heritage organization.
The group calls for the secession of Southern states and for members to get out of public schools in favor of homeschooling "or the establishment of our own private academies," according to its website. That stance riled Nassau's teachers union.
Withers, who belonged to the league for six months, said he joined the group to promote Southern heritage at the invitation of a School Board member and was unaware of its classification as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, or its stance on public education.
"I thought I was joining the Sons of Confederate Veterans," he said. "Once I got in and found out they were political, I stopped going to meetings. I have a commitment to good racial relations."
He said he was happy to officially withdraw his membership when the superintendent asked him to. The Nassau board later renewed his contract for another three years.
Withers joined Kaufman, Englett & Lynd in Orlando last year. He has a law degree from the University of Florida.
Lyn, 45, has her own practice and wants to serve Hernando on an outside contract basis. She has twice run unsuccessfully for local judgeships.
The McLain firm, which also seeks to land an outside services contract, has served as general counsel for the Pasco School Board since 1972 and for the Pasco County clerk of circuit court for more than two decades.
The board is slated to interview the finalists on March 13.
Times news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]