Kickback evidence sought in probe Questions raised of sabotage of school computer system

March 16, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Federal investigators are looking for evidence of kickbacks and computer sabotage as they interview employees and pore over past contracts from the Baltimore schools' computer department.

Employees who have been questioned by FBI agents describe a broad-based investigation of purchases of computer equipment and software design services between 1992 and 1995.

The employees say they have been asked whether co-workers had improper ties to two companies with which they did business, IBM and Traore Corp. The school system bought $1.2 million in computer equipment from IBM throughout those years. Traore Corp. was hired in October 1994 for $169,000 to design computer programs for managing student records.

School system employees, who asked not to be identified, say they have been asked whether the contractors paid kickbacks to computer department staff or to former department supervisor Terry Laster. Employees and Mr. Laster said no wrongdoing occurred.

"That is so remotely far-fetched that it is ridiculous," Mr. Laster said yesterday. He now works for the city's computer and finance departments. He left his school system job Aug. 30 in a transfer negotiated as a result of a court order to change the schools' special education computer system, which he created. Mr. Laster said he has not been contacted by federal authorities.

Artie O'Connor, who runs Traore Corp. in Baltimore, declined to comment yesterday. "We don't think it is prudent at this time to comment. Neither he nor I know where this is going," his attorney, Ben Alston, said. Mr. Alston confirmed that Traore Corp. delivered financial records this week to the U.S. attorney's office in response to a subpoena.

Mr. Laster and Mr. O'Connor are former employees of IBM.

The adequacy of the special education computer system one piece of a larger system that holds school records is an issue in a federal lawsuit. The suit seeks to ensure that students with disabilities receive the educational benefits and other services they are entitled to under federal law, and that proper records of those services are kept.

The federal investigators also have inquired about incidents that occurred on and since Sept. 30, when the special education computer system under the court order was turned off amid protests from employees who maintained that it should remain in service.

'Discoveries' cited

Many employees maintained that the system they'd worked on performed its required functions; critics said the system as well as the information it contained were flawed.

Federal authorities have asked employees whether there was, in their word, "sabotage" attempts to thwart the transition from that computer system to its current replacement, the employees say.

Employees also have been asked about letters directed to school employees who have worked on the replacement system, including Craig Richburg, who took over as department director in October and has planned a staff reorganization.

Mr. Richburg said yesterday that soon after he arrived in the department he made "discoveries" of information that warranted inquiry. He said he wanted an outside, objective inquiry and passed on the information to a federal court monitor assigned to oversee special education improvements in the school system. He also passed on letters, which he described as threatening, addressed to him and to other employees of the computer department.

He declined to elaborate on the "discoveries" he made.

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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