Prosecutors seize documents in investigation of city schools

Probe involves funds paid to system for building use

March 12, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The state prosecutor's office, which has been looking into the Baltimore school system's financial crisis for evidence of wrongdoing, has removed documents from a school system warehouse, an investigator says.

"We are conducting an investigation that involves monies paid to the school system for the use of building facilities," said James I. Cabezas, chief investigator for State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli.

The documents, he said, were at one point in the control of a former school employee, but he would not identify the employee. The school facilities were being leased, he said.

The state prosecutor is also reviewing two other areas: the contract of a private consultant who earned more than $600,000 in 18 months and the awarding of bus contracts.

Cabezas said the investigations are "moving quickly" because they have the cooperation of schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland and her staff.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio has created a page on his office's Web site asking the public to turn in anyone suspected of criminal conduct in connection with the city school system's $58 million accumulated deficit.

On the federal prosecutor's homepage, www.usdoj.gov/usao/md, Internet users can click on a new link, "The Baltimore City School Financial Crisis Tips," and inform investigators about any wrongdoing.

"We are interested in any information relating to criminal conduct, including kickbacks, bribes, no-show jobs or actual theft that contributed to the Baltimore City School system's deficit," the Web page reads.

As prosecutors worked on investigations yesterday, city and school officials continued working out details of a memorandum of understanding that will outline the terms of the city's plan to save the struggling schools from insolvency.

City officials expect the terms of the agreement to be ready by Wednesday -- when the plan is scheduled to be presented to the city's Board of Estimates, which has authority over the city's finances.

On Monday, Mayor Martin O'Malley offered the school system a $42 million loan -- and agreed to work with school officials to improve the system's management and financial structures.

The mayor's plan usurped Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s offer of a loan coupled with an attempt to enforce more fiscal accountability and take more control of the school system.

In the midst of the political tug of war yesterday, two influential judges reminded top city, state and school officials that they are operating under a court-ordered partnership developed to keep one thing paramount -- the welfare of the city's schoolchildren.

Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan and U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis met with State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, Copeland and City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr., discussing how to protect the education of the city's 90,000 children despite the upheaval caused by the system's chronic financial problems.

Kaplan asked the city, state and school system to deliver to him by April 7 fiscal accountability plans that center on academics.

The meeting was requested last week by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"What's important to remember is that this has all been seen as a political issue," said Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU. "There's this other whole arena that's largely been ignored, and that is that the courts are involved. And the judges intend to have ongoing oversight as the parties go forward."

Ten years ago, the ACLU and other parties representing city schoolchildren filed a lawsuit against the state seeking more money for Baltimore schools. The result was a 1996 consent decree that led to legislation creating the partnership.

Garbis oversees a 20-year-old special education case against the school system.

Kaplan made it plain yesterday, Goering said, that politics should be put aside.

"He clearly sees this as a partnership. The city and the state are both responsible," she said. "And although the state has ultimate responsibility for the education of the city's children, he expects all the parties to step up to the plate and do what's best for the children."

The groups will meet again with Kaplan and Garbis on April 14.

Sun staff writers Liz Bowie and Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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