It was touted as a bombshell: a secretly recorded conversation between two key players in the growing Camden schools cheating scandal.

But the recording by former Camden school principal Joseph D. Carruth fell short of its all-star billing and raised as many questions as it was supposed to answer.

With such uncertainty, it may be left to investigators to determine what significance - if any - the recording will play in a wide-ranging criminal probe by the state Attorney General's Office into the Camden school system, including the cheating allegations.

"Admittedly, there's no smoking gun," said Kevin Mitchell, one of Carruth's attorneys.

Carruth said he was working with the county prosecutor when he secretly recorded a June 2, 2005, telephone call in which he told school board President Philip E. Freeman that his lawyers had concluded he "was asked to do something illegal."

Carruth has alleged that Assistant Superintendent Luis Pagan tried to pressure him to rig 2005 state standardized math scores at the elite Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High. Pagan has denied the allegation.

In releasing two recordings on Jan. 22, Carruth and his attorneys said the tape corroborated Carruth's version of events surrounding the rigged test scores. But the tapes don't explicitly describe Pagan's alleged pressure on Carruth, and both sides disagree on the meaning of what was said.

That the tapes exist at all undermines a lengthy and expensive internal investigation by Edward Borden Jr., who deemed that Carruth's allegations about Pagan were untrue, said observers who include district and board sources and Carruth's attorneys.

Eric Taylor, another one of Carruth's lawyers, said Borden's failure to mention the recordings in his report shows that the investigation was "conducted in a less than thorough manner."

The tapes also raise questions about whether Carruth was candid with Freeman during the June 2 and 3 calls and whether Freeman should have probed further in the two recorded conversations to get to the bottom of Carruth's allegations.

Carruth recorded Freeman on at least two occasions but referred to Pagan only in the June 2 call.

A former Camden County prosecutor, Borden said he was unaware of the tape during his investigation of the test-score irregularities at Brimm. He said he based his findings that Carruth was not credible partly on Freeman's recollection of his June 2005 conversation with Carruth. He cited seven reasons and several inconsistencies.

Carruth and Borden also disagree on whether Borden had access to the tape. Carruth's lawyer said he dropped off a copy to Borden, who says he never saw it.

Borden said he did not request a transcript from prosecutors because he believed they would not turn over investigative materials.

"I'm sure I did not ask them for that specific tape," Borden said. "The prosecutor is certainly not about to release recordings of conversations made by informants."

A spokesman for the county Prosecutor's Office has declined to comment.

Carruth mentions Pagan on the tape but makes no specific reference to test rigging. Carruth has said that he refused to participate in the alleged actions.

Carruth's most direct reference to Pagan comes when he tells Freeman why he wants to speak to the board:

"It's what I told you about with Mr. Pagan as far as what he asked me to do about making sure the kids passed the HSPA," Carruth said in the recording, referring to the state's High School Proficiency Assessment.

Carruth told Freeman in the June call that he had contacted the prosecutor and was now getting back to Freeman because he was ready to go before the board.

The prosecutor "said they were going to have an investigation. They took a statement from me. At that point they told me I couldn't talk about it with anyone," Carruth told Freeman.

"Wow!" Freeman replied on the tape.

Carruth added: "They finally gave me clearance now so I can go ahead and bring it to the board's attention."

Freeman recalled speaking with Carruth, but said Carruth provided few details about why he wanted to meet with the board. He said he learned about the tape when it was released by Carruth on Jan. 22.

In March 2006, the board hired Borden to investigate after The Inquirer disclosed that Carruth had taken his allegations about cheating pressure at the high school to the county prosecutor, the state and the district.

Borden's report, released on Jan. 18, concluded that "illicit tampering" was responsible for Brimm's high test scores in 2005. It blamed the district's director of guidance for alleged changing of answers.

Contact staff writer Melanie Burney at 856-779-3876 or mburney@phillynews.com.