Red Letter Day

A cease-and-desist demand from the superintendent to one of her bosses? It's business as usual at the St. Louis Public Schools.

Amy Hilgemann returned to her south-side home one evening last month to find an ominous letter awaiting her.

A man had come to the door at about 8:30 p.m. and handed her husband a plain white envelope addressed to Hilgemann. The couple's house number had been typed incorrectly, then rewritten in by hand.

The ersatz postal carrier did not identify himself.

Inside the envelope was a letter, dated January 12, indicating that Pamela Randall Hughes, interim superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, had retained an attorney and was threatening legal action against Hilgemann, one of Hughes' bosses on the St. Louis Board of Education.

"What is this?" Hilgemann recalls saying to herself.

The three-paragraph missive, written by attorney Dorian B. Amon, accuses Hilgemann of making false allegations against Hughes. According to the letter, a photocopy of which Hilgemann provided the Riverfront Times, the school board member:

  • has stated in "public venues" that Hughes "is personally connected to and/or directly involved in illegal drug activity"

  • has said more than once in a "public venue" that Hughes "has received financial gain and profit from alleged illegal drug activity"

  • has stated in a "public forum" that Hughes "will face indictment and confiscation of her residence in the immediate near future resulting from her personal illegal drug connection involvement"

"This letter is a demand you cease and desist from making such allegations," Amon writes. "[W]e are presently contemplating [Hughes]'s legal recourse against you and all others (if any) for making the above stated slanderous, false and untrue accusations. If in fact you made said statements as above stated be advised you should seek legal counsel immediately."

Richard Wilkes, spokesman for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, says his agency is not investigating Hughes. The Drug Enforcement Administration's local division can neither confirm nor deny subjects under investigation, according to spokesman Alan Wilson.

Amon's letter to Hilgemann is only the most recent tempest to rock the school district's boat. In 2003 a newly elected slate of school board members led by former St. Louis mayor Vince Schoemehl loosed a tsunami of community ill will by bringing in former Brooks Brothers CEO Bill Roberti as interim superintendent. By the time Roberti's reign ended last year, 21 schools had been shuttered, more than 1,400 staffers had been laid off and millions of dollars had been paid to Roberti's New York-based consulting firm, Alvarez & Marsal. Amid the debate over the school closings, then-school board member Rochell Moore placed a well-publicized curse on St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and revealed she'd been temporarily committed to a hospital psychiatric unit (allegedly after a school official dosed her coffee with cocaine). Board members have been on the verge of fisticuffs during meetings. And in November, after just four months as top dog, interim superintendent Floyd Crues took an abrupt medical leave from his $220,000-a-year post and hasn't been heard from since.

Hughes, whom the board tapped to replace Crues, declines to discuss the letter her attorney sent Hilgemann. Reached by phone, Hughes referred all questions to Amon. During a subsequent exchange outside the district office last week, she again declined to comment. "I'm sorry," she said as she was ushered to her car by district spokesman Johnny Little.

Amon, who says he handles general litigation cases in St. Louis and entertainment-law cases in New York, would divulge little about what prompted him to write the letter.

"I have affidavits verifying what's been going on," he says, but declines to go into detail other than to say it's absurd to link his client with illegal drug activity. Says Amon: "She doesn't have the mindset for it, the heart for it. She's one of those goody-two-shoes kinds of people."

Do his references to "public venues" and "a public forum" refer to school board meetings?

The terms apply "anytime you slander someone and you said it in such a way that others hear it, and others believe it, and you intend for them to believe it, when you know or have reason to know it's not true," the attorney says.

"I don't know when they started. I don't know how many. I only believe that Ms. Hilgemann -- is that her name? -- is a source," Amon adds. "Now where she got it from, or if she made it out of whole cloth, I don't know."

Hilgemann categorically denies Amon's allegations, saying, "I have never made any statements in public about Pamela Randall Hughes, period."

Beyond that, the school board member says she's baffled that Hughes would retain the services of a lawyer to set things straight. "I would think she would call and say, 'Hey, maybe we should sit down and talk. I have a few issues I'm concerned about.'

"She could've said to me, 'Well, on this date at this place you did this,' but she didn't," Hilgemann continues. "And nothing in the letter actually pins down when and where these allegations that they have made occurred."

The letter does, however, appear to underscore a deteriorating relationship between Hughes and Hilgemann.

Hilgemann, who was elected to the board in 2001, says her phone calls to the interim superintendent go unreturned and the two rarely speak at board meetings. A scheduled phone conversation between the women fell through recently, Hilgemann says, when Hughes failed to keep the appointment. Hilgemann says she was told the superintendent had left for the day.

"When Dr. Hammonds was there, he and I had totally different opinions about everything," Hilgemann recounts, referring to former superintendent Cleveland Hammonds Jr. "There was a lot of disagreement, but he always called me back. There's a certain kind of diplomacy that you have to have as a superintendent, and [Hughes] doesn't have it."

School board president Darnetta Clinkscale called Hughes' tack "low-key." Says Clinkscale: "There are always many ways to approach a situation. I think Dr. Hughes' attempt was to not take the focus off of what she is trying to do, and that is focusing on teaching and learning."

Fellow board member Vince Schoemehl declines to discuss the matter, and Robert Archibald did not return calls seeking comment. But the spat has left Hilgemann's other colleagues shaking their heads.

"Pretty wild stuff, but I don't know anything about it," says Ronald Jackson.

"Oh my God," Bill Haas says. "The whole thing makes me very sad. I'm with Amy at a whole bunch of public forums, of course, related to school-board matters, and I personally don't remember her having said those things. I'd like to think that it's a misunderstanding."

"I think it's bizarre," says Veronica O'Brien, adding, "I think it's unfortunate that Hilgemann is being blamed for something that I know she didn't do."

O'Brien says about twenty people have called her since mid-January with questions about rumors involving Hughes. "I informed the interim superintendent of what was being brought to me, and she was directing all calls and comments to her attorney," O'Brien says.

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