Prosecutors to see construction probe

School personnel included in report, board president says

March 16, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

After combing through documents and conducting hundreds of interviews, the attorney leading an investigation of construction problems in Carroll County schools has concluded some of his findings are serious enough to be kept from the public until prosecutors decide whether to present them to a grand jury.

The move appears to stray from a plan presented in December by Carroll school officials, who said that since grand jury proceedings were secret, they would launch their investigation to give taxpayers a complete picture of problems that exist.

"We are making everything public but for a few matters that are somewhat sensitive," said Richard D. Bennett, the attorney who led the school system's internal investigation. "I had to -- and this was not my original intent -- say that there are some matters [Carroll County State's Attorney] Jerry F. Barnes should see."

Sealing part of the report is a blow to a school system barraged by legal troubles, most of them related to botched school construction.

Two projects -- Cranberry Station Elementary and a sewage treatment plant at Francis Scott Key High -- led to lawsuits last year.

In May, a county grand jury began investigating how the school system's construction department managed those projects, and also began examining whether other problems exist in departments throughout the system.

Hired law firm

As the grand jury conducted its inquiry, the school board in December hired the law firm of Miles & Stockbridge to undertake what was announced as a swift investigation whose results would be immediately made public.

School officials counted on that inquiry to regain public confidence. School board member Gary W. Bauer said in January: "All I can do is ask the public to be patient and wait for the report from our consultants that will reveal all the facts behind these issues."

According to Bennett, about 90 percent of his report will be included in a document scheduled to be released to the public March 27. He said the other 10 percent should remain sealed.

Bennett's team of investigators included another attorney, three former FBI agents and a former U.S. Senate aide. But they lacked subpoena power and authority to demand interviews under oath. The grand jury, which has those powers, Bennett said, would have to decide how to handle the sealed information and whether to make it public.

Bennett stressed that his passing information to the state's attorney does not indicate evidence of criminal activity. He would not comment further on the contents of his report.

Extended term

According to Barnes, the grand jury investigating the school system continues to meet regularly -- about every other month. He said its members were "anxious" to see Bennett's report, and would likely call a session to review it.

The 23-member grand jury was impaneled in May and, at the request of its members, extended its original six-month term indefinitely to focus exclusively on the school inquiry.

Barnes said he did not know when the inquiry will be finished. The grand jury, once it completes its inquiry, can hand up indictments, issue a report that might or might not be made public, or decide to take no action.

Barnes said the jurors might wish to call more witnesses or subpoena more evidence once it reviews Bennett's report.

"It could take a year, it could take more," said Barnes. "We're going to see this through to the finish."

Puzzled by findings

Donald R. Jansiewicz, a political science professor at Carroll Community College, predicted county residents would be puzzled that not all of Bennett's findings would be made public.

School officials, he said, had misled residents by hinting that their report could supplant the work of the grand jury. But "this was extra, and it was not legally binding," he said of Bennett's report. "The grand jury is the thing that counts."

On Monday, the five-member school board and Superintendent William H. Hyde received drafts of the portion of Bennett's report to be made public.

Hyde's office said yesterday that Bennett's investigation had so far cost the school system $173,000.

Hyde referred other questions about the report to board President C. Scott Stone.

Stone said the sealed portions of Bennett's report contained information about school personnel that the school board could not legally release.

He said that he had no evidence that Bennett concluded any criminal wrongdoing had occurred. But because information was being passed to the state's attorney, "I must conclude there is some question of civil wrongdoing."

`An inch thick'

Susan W. Krebs, the only board member who has acknowledged testifying to the grand jury, would not discuss the report, saying it is "an inch think." Krebs said board members, when given their copies, had to sign a form promising to return the documents by Friday, and that the superintendent would destroy them.

Krebs said she thought board members were expected to review the report to see if issues were left out, but not to edit it.

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