CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A prominent West Virginia lobbyist is suing the state Superintendent of Schools in federal court, alleging that Steve Paine used his authority to try to have him fired.
“This case is about the abuse of power,” states the lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of lobbyist Jason Webb.
Webb’s Capitol Advocates lobbying firm includes clients like AFLAC, Airbnb, Uber, K12 and the West Virginia Land and Mineral Owners Association. In this case, it was his work on behalf of the standardized testing company ACT that led to conflict.
Paine has been the state Superintendent of Schools twice, serving first from 2005 to 2011 and then returning in 2017. Paine received an exemplary performance evaluation on Wednesday from the state Board of Education.
Neither party in the lawsuit offered a comment on Wednesday afternoon.
Webb’s lawyer, Zak Ritchie, stated “While we appreciate the interest, Jason will let the complaint speak for itself at this time.”
Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson relayed a message from Paine and Deputy Superintendent Jan Barth, who was also named in the lawsuit.
“Dr. Paine and Dr. Barth are aware of the lawsuit that has been filed by Jason Webb but have not been served. They both deny the allegations set forth in the complaint. Additionally, the West Virginia Department of Education stands by its procurement procedure for the state’s summative assessment which was conducted in a transparent and fair manner.”
Webb’s lawsuit against Paine was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.
The lawsuit claims that several times in 2018 and 2019, Paine personally called top ACT officials — including the chief executive officer — to push for Webb to stop from publicly criticizing the Department of Education, particular education policies or other standardized testing vendors.
If not, the lawsuit claims, “Paine would ensure that ACT would never do business with the State of West Virginia again.”
The lawsuit contends those actions violated Webb’s First Amendment Rights and “constitutes tortious interference with Webb’s business relationship with his client ACT.”
The politics of ACT versus SAT, another standardized test run by the College Board, runs through the lawsuit’s narrative.
The lawsuit has its origins in 2017 when West Virginia officials were talking about adopting ACT as its official statewide assessment.
That was also the year Paine returned as superintendent.
During Webb’s lobbying efforts that year, the lawsuit contends, Paine called a national lobbyist he already knew at ACT to say the company better “get a handle on Jason Webb.” The lawsuit also contends Paine insinuated ACT would be shut out of future statewide assessment contracts.
That vibe continued as legislation was considered and as a request for proposal for statewide assessments went out for competitive bid.
Some of the criticism of Webb focused on his use of social media to criticize rival SAT as well as positions taken by the state Department of Education, according to the lawsuit.
Matters came to a head, the lawsuit states, on a telephone call between Paine and the chief executive of ACT. The lawsuit claims that Paine told the CEO that Webb had a “bad reputation” and that ACT needed to “get rid of him.”
The CEO responded that if Webb had done something wrong then Paine should file a complaint with the West Virginia Ethics Commission.
Webb is asking for a jury trial, damages and other relief.
Paine’s superior performance evaluation was announced just a few hours before the lawsuit was publicly filed.
“Dr. Paine is uniquely suited to fulfill the requirements of State Superintendent of Schools,” stated West Virginia school board member Debra Sullivan, who led the evaluation process.
“He leads with purpose, vision, conviction and determination. Dr. Paine is methodical, politically-astute and pragmatic while at the same time optimistic about the potential of our schools to change students’ lives and the trajectory of our state.”