Claims known before letter, O'Rourke says

Schools chief says he was informed before e-mail

`It's a multifaceted situation'

Two accused say inquiry will clear their names

Howard County

December 11, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said yesterday he knew about allegations of improper grade changing by two top school system officials before an unsigned letter containing the accusations surfaced last week, even though it appeared he had suggested otherwise in an earlier interview.

"My decision to investigate alleged unethical behavior on the part of my deputy superintendent [Kimberly Statham] and assistant superintendent for administration [Roger L. Plunkett] is not in response to an anonymous letter, but based on information that came to me before the letter was circulated," O'Rourke said in a statement.

On Monday, O'Rourke told The Sun that the school system does not typically investigate anonymous accusations, but that this case was different because of the seriousness of the unproven charges - that Plunkett and Statham are said to have abused their power to change the transcript of a Statham relative at Centennial High School - and the high-level positions of those being accused.

When asked yesterday if that was an accurate characterization of the interview, O'Rourke said, "Yes, but that's not to say that I wasn't informed of some things before the anonymous mail was sent out."

He added that he received his information Dec 3. The letter was sent to school board members via e-mail that same evening and to multiple media outlets and public officials Dec. 4, the same day O'Rourke said he hired a former FBI agent to investigate.

"It's a multifaceted situation," he said. "I'm dealing with it."

Statham has denied any wrongdoing and said an investigation will result in finding her innocent. Plunkett said yesterday that he, too, welcomes an inquiry, which will "certainly clear my name."

Plunkett said he hopes the inquiry also reveals the identity of the letter writer, who claimed to be a Howard County teacher.

"It is a shame that an educator would be so unfocused on children," Plunkett said.

O'Rourke has hired Chesapeake Investigative Associates Inc., based in Towson, to look into the matter. Thomas R. Cherigo, a 30-year FBI veteran, is heading the inquiry. "Our job is primarily to develop facts and present them to the superintendent," Cherigo said by phone yesterday during a business trip on the West Coast.

Cherigo said his company, staffed primarily with former FBI agents, performs a range of investigative services, but has never handled a school system inquiry. He is focusing on the allegations contained in the letter and on school system personnel, he said, and not on the letter writer's identity. But, he added, "the list is still developing."

On Tuesday evening, Howard County Dels. Warren E. Miller and Gail H. Bates, both Republicans, sent a letter to O'Rourke and the school board criticizing the way the situation was being handled. They thought the school board should head the investigation, they wrote, but later learned that that would be a conflict of interest.

"What can I say? You learn as you go," said Miller, who was appointed in March to fill the vacancy created when Robert L. Flanagan resigned to become state transportation secretary.

"We can't get involved until there is a superintendent's decision," said Sandra H. French, chairman of the school board. She said that if such a decision resulted in negative action for a staff member - such as a termination - the person's only recourse is to appeal to the school board, a remedy required by law.

Miller said that in itself could be a problem.

"It begs the question, do we need to change state law?" Miller said. "Do we need to remove the appeals function so that they can investigate accusations of wrongdoing in the county school system?"

Typically, accusations of staff misconduct would be investigated in-house, but the nature of this case required outside intervention, O'Rourke's statement said: "Any personnel issue is an administrative matter and is handled as such. In this particular case, because the individuals involved are two of my closest associates, I elected to hire an independent investigator to ensure the integrity and objectivity of the investigation."

O'Rourke has urged his staff to cooperate in the investigation, as well as "any individuals not employed by the system who may be contacted."

The anonymous e-mail also contains allegations that Statham's husband, Michael V. Statham, was "verbally abusive" to Centennial High School staff members. He was employed as a substitute teacher at seven Howard County schools from Jan. 13 through May 6, said Patti Caplan, the schools system spokeswoman, though she did not think Centennial High was among them.

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