Testimony begins in first Atlanta school cheating case



ATLANTA — The first trial is underway for an educator charged in a massive cheating scandal in Atlanta’s public school system.

Testimony began Friday in the trial of former area director Tamara Cotman, the first of about three dozen former administrators and teachers to stand trial.

Witnesses could include former Gov. Son­ny Perdue, who ordered a state investigation of the claims.

Prosecutors will try to outline how cheating happened on such a broad scale. Cotman has pleaded not guilty to influencing a witness.

The 2011 state investigation concluded that cheating occurred at 44 schools so educators could avoid losing their jobs and earn bonuses.

Opening testimony showed Cotman rebuffed a teacher who reported that she had been given standardized test answer sheets. Mary Gordon, who taught at Turner Middle School, said Cotman told her “they just do that at Turner” when asked about the answer sheets. Gordon’s principal then put her on an improvement plan, and Gordon quit out of frustration, ending a 29-year career.

Gordon testified for the prosecution to back up charges alleging that Cotman harassed and demoted a principal she believed told the school board that Cotman gave instructions to tell cheating scandal investigators to “go to hell.”

Cotman is one of 35 former administrators and teachers, including former Super­in­ten­dent Beverly Hall, who later will be tried on criminal charges of changing students’ answers on standardized tests.

“We’re going to prove to you that this defendant knew there was cheating going on and she did nothing about it,” Clint Rucker, an assistant district attorney, said in his opening statement. “Those who told the truth got punished.”

Cotman’s attorney, Benjamin Davis, did not make an opening statement, reserving his time to do so until after the prosecution finishes presenting its case.

“I believe in my client’s innocence,” Davis said afterward. “We believe so far that the state hasn’t proved anything, so I didn’t see a need to give a statement.”

Cotman is standing trial before the other defendants because her attorney requested a speedy trial on the single count of influencing a witness.