Grand jury to expand schools probe

Possible kickbacks, thefts, misconduct to be added to inquiry

`Very serious situations'

Decision follows independent review of construction problems

March 30, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Presented with new evidence of mismanagement of school construction programs, the Carroll County state's attorney said yesterday a grand jury will investigate possible kickback schemes and thefts.

State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes based the decision on a report prepared by a team of independent investigators hired by the school board to conduct an inquiry into bungled construction projects. Led by former U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett, the investigators released 90 percent of their findings this week but sealed the rest and presented them to Barnes.

"There are some very serious situations that were described," Barnes said. They included questions whether school officials tampered with bids for school construction projects, and whether contractors were asked to submit misleading invoices.

"A lot of the situations Mr. Bennett's office has been working on need to be carried much further," Barnes said.

In the portions made public, Bennett's report documented cases in which school officials accelerated projects despite warnings from architects and contractors of construction problems, appeared to favor certain contractors in the bidding process and accepted substitutions of cheaper building materials without later accounting for the money presumably saved.

In describing possible subjects for the grand jury, Barnes listed "theft," "kickbacks," "misconduct in office" and "perjury." But he would neither release nor discuss in detail the contents of the sealed portions of the report.

A grand jury has been investigating the school system since May and, according to Barnes, will increase the frequency of its sessions, call more witnesses and subpoena additional documents.

The grand jury launched its investigation last year after several construction projects -- Cranberry Station Elementary and a sewage treatment plant at Francis Scott Key High School -- became the subject of lawsuits. The school system has been in legal turmoil since then.

Bennett's report chronicled a series of errors by the school construction department and portrayed it as beset by chaos and inexperience, and ill-prepared to handle the tasks of building schools in a rapidly growing county.

After receiving the report, the five-member school board asked Superintendent William H. Hyde to present an "action plan" in two weeks for reforming the construction department. School board President C. Scott Stone also said he would ask members of the board whether they wished to discuss Hyde's involvement in the construction problems, and his job status.

School officials said yesterday they did not know the grand jury inquiry was about to accelerate, but that they were not surprised.

"I'm concerned, but we need to get to the bottom of this," said Stone. "If part of that means going to the state's attorney, then let's get to the bottom of it."

Added board member Gary W. Bauer: "That's why [Barnes] has the information in hand and he can proceed with whatever route he wants to take."

Hyde could not be reached last night to comment on the grand jury inquiry. But earlier in the day, he said that many of the issues raised by Bennett had been investigated by the school administration and resolved.

"My message to staff internally is that creation of an action plan and conducting this study -- there is not anyone with anything carrying a higher priority than that," he said.

Hyde said he understood why the school board would want to discuss his job status because many of the construction projects took place during his administration. He said he had "absolutely no doubt" of his ability to continue as superintendent.

A school board member, Susan W. Krebs, complained that Hyde had improperly been involved in editing the version of the report released to the public.

"The independent nature of this report has been compromised," said Krebs, who claimed that Hyde's changes "toned down" the involvement of top school officials, including Hyde himself and Assistant Superintendent of Administration Vernon F. Smith.

Stone, the board president, maintained that the changes were minor.

Barnes, who has copies of drafts and the final version of Bennett's report, said Hyde and school board attorney Edmund O'Meally had made about 80 recommendations for editing, some of them significant.

"How can you have an independent report if you're striking out independent evaluations?" Barnes asked.

In Maryland, a grand jury investigating a government agency can hand up indictments, issue a report that may or may not be made public, or take no action.

Sun staff writer Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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