Four years before the public learned that Columbus City Schools administrators were routinely changing student records to make the schools and district look better, the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office got a glimpse of what came to be called "data scrubbing."

In 2008, according to state documents released last week in the disciplinary case against a former Columbus schools administrator, assistant prosecutors working truancy cases were told evidence that a student had missed school had been deleted, along with other absences, because the principal of Whetstone High School wanted to make the school look better. One assistant prosecutor even told a district employee that sounded like fraud.

It was fraud. But the data scrubbing involving millions of student records went on four more years before The Dispatch exposed it. After that, the county prosecutor's office pursued criminal charges against Superintendent Gene Harris and other administrators. Harris was convicted of dereliction of duty and placed on probation; others served jail time for their involvement in tampering with records.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said the 2008 emails in the state file show his assistant prosecutors acted properly because they questioned the district about what they'd heard, and they were assured the data problems were isolated mistakes.

That 2008 exchange was revealed in 105 pages of evidence against Mary Ey, a former Columbus schools administrator who the state accused of failing to investigate four reports of administrators altering or deleting student data. She is among potentially dozens of current and former district administrators whose actions in the district's data scandal remain under review by the state to this day. The Department of Education process is secret until a complaint is filed.

A state hearing examiner recommended to the State Board of Education this past week that Ey be allowed to keep her educator's licenses. Instead, a board member plans to offer another resolution to the case next month.

"I think it goes without saying that the hearing officer offered nothing to happen, so there's only one way to go," said Nick Owens, the state Board of Education member, an assistant prosecutor in Brown County. "It was clear through the filing that (the department) wanted a higher sanction."

The Department of Education noted that Ey "didn't report to her supervisor, didn't take steps to talk to witnesses or locate additional records on her own, didn't follow up with (the tipster), didn't write up a report, or document her efforts to address the issues related to data manipulation."

The tipster, Katie Huenke, a now-retired supervisor over district social workers, testified at Ey's hearing that she had noticed attendance records used in truancy cases were disappearing before cases went to trial, a phenomenon that escalated toward the end of the 2010-11 school year. It caused truancy cases to be dismissed.

Ey testified that she didn't recall receiving some of Huenke's warnings, and at one point asked Huenke to gather more details about the problem. Huenke, Ey said, was instructed to "contact students' parents, check on students' attendance status, collect additional information, and request attendance records from the school districts to which the students were purportedly transferred," and investigate unexcused absences. Ey said if she had gotten this supporting information from Huenke, she would have acted on it.

Huenke told The Dispatch in 2013 that she was "incredulous" at Ey's "virtually impossible" instructions.

Excerpts from emails included in Ey's hearing file show assistant prosecutors were concerned about reports of deleted attendance records and questioned the district about it. 

In an 2008 email, Rebecca Muncy, an assistant prosecutor, wrote that she was covering truancy cases, "and the liaison from Columbus Public Schools informed me that at the end of this past school year the principal of Whetstone had the school secretary delete ALL of the absences for ALL of the students at the school.

"Apparently he wanted his school to look good and wasn't thinking ahead to the truancy cases that had been filed."

Three days later, another assistant prosecutor, Christine Julian, shared Muncy's email with Huenke, adding: "Please tell me there's a backup school record that retains accurate school-attendance records."

Huenke immediately emailed the court liaison, Kathleen Burton, asking "why this information was shared with court workers."

Burton replied that she had to explain to the assistant prosecutor outside the courtroom why the attendance records changed. "She asked me why they do that and said that this constituted fraud," Burton told Huenke. "I said I didn't know why. ... If we went to trial, it was going to be very ugly trying to explain this record to the court."

The problem was solved when the student pleaded guilty to truancy and "the prosecutor only made reference to the attendance she had gotten back in April," Burton wrote. 

The same day, Huenke responded to the assistant prosecutor, Julian, that "there appeared to be some discrepancies in a FEW attendance records at one school," and "we will look into the matter and get back to you." 

The Department of Education didn't respond to a request to view the entire email exchange.

O'Brien said that the emails show assistant prosecutors asked district officials "to look into it and advise them, as it could jeopardize future truancy cases." 

Huenke said in an interview this week that recordkeeping was an ongoing problem when she was working, but that she didn't begin to suspect widespread fraud until 2010. Huenke said she reported every discrepancy she learned of to her district superiors, including Ey. 

Ey didn't return a telephone call from The Dispatch.

As early as 2004, an anonymous tipster wrote to school board members, including now Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, that district administrators were engaged in "unethical and maybe criminal data ‘cleansing.' " The practice didn't become public until 2012 when The Dispatch broke the story.