Sales rep's ties to schools CEO raise issues in software deal

Prince George's official backed $1 million contract

October 14, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When Prince George's County public schools made a $1 million software purchase from LeapFrog SchoolHouse in June, schools CEO Andre J. Hornsby did not disclose his close personal relationship with a company saleswoman.

Hornsby lives with LeapFrog employee Sienna Owens in Mitchellville, but he did not reveal that to school board officials at the time of the purchase, which Hornsby presided over. The contract, which did not require bidding, used federal funds to buy early-literacy and assessment software for low-income kindergarten students.

Hornsby, 51, who assumed the $250,000 CEO job in the spring of 2003, declined to be interviewed. But system spokeswoman Kelly Alexander said the purchase was not influenced by Hornsby's relationship with Owens, 26. And in an interview, Owens said she did not have a role in the deal and did not benefit financially from it.

Hornsby "just doesn't make decisions based on his personal relationships," Alexander said. "He bases his decisions on the basis of what's the best for the children."

County school board Chairwoman Beatrice Tignor said Hornsby made no mention to the board of his relationship with Owens at the time of the LeapFrog purchase in June, by which point Owens had been employed by the Emeryville, Calif.-based company for four months.

Tignor said yesterday that she did not see any reason for Hornsby to disclose that he is living with an employee of a company from which the county was making a major purchase.

"We are very comfortable with his decision [to purchase LeapFrog] and do not see any impropriety there. I don't see the necessity for him to bring it up," she said. "We bought a product based on the worth of the product. ... It has nothing to do with the person who sells it."

Tignor said that if Hornsby were married to a LeapFrog employee, disclosure might be in order, but his relationship with Owens did not require it: "As long as [Hornsby and Owens] are not married, I'm comfortable. I can't assume anything other than that they have a shared-space relationship."

Another board member, Judy Mickens-Murray, expressed some misgivings about not having been informed about the relationship at the time of the purchase.

"It was not disclosed to me. I'm surprised. I knew nothing about it," she said. "Not that he needs to tell me who he has a relationship with ... but I would be concerned about any behavior that could send the signal to children that we are not following the proper process."

Ethics disclosure

Hornsby also did not mention Owens on his annual ethics disclosure form. Alexander said he didn't have to because Owens was not working for LeapFrog at the time Hornsby signed his form in January. Owens was employed at that time by another education vendor, Princeton Review, with which the county was not doing business, so "logically, he had no reason to disclose any relationship," Alexander said.

The disclosure forms ask administrators to state, among other things, whether their spouse or any member of their immediate family is employed by a company doing business with the school system. The forms are reviewed by a five-person ethics panel, which holds hearings on potential violations.

Ethics experts said Hornsby's relationship with a LeapFrog employee, whatever its legal status, created at least the appearance of a potential conflict of interest in the $1 million deal. To allay any such concerns, they said, Hornsby should have disclosed the relationship to other school officials before the sale.

"For public officials, there's an obligation to be as transparent as possible in all dealings, especially in purchasing," said Alfred Guy, director of the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics at the University of Baltimore.

"If that's not done, you're inviting public concern because there's the perception of a conflict of interest and favoritism and feathering your own nest - even if there's no actual malicious intent."

Lunches and trips

Dealings between school officials and education vendors have raised ethical questions across the country, as companies seeking big contracts woo administrators with everything from lavish lunches to all-expenses-paid trips to conferences.

Such courting has intensified since the passage of the 2002 No Child Left Behind reform law, which has made many districts tempting targets for vendors by increasing federal funding for schools and ratcheting up the pressure on districts to find quick fixes to raise test scores.

Last month, The Sun reported that Hornsby had gone on a 10-day trip to South Africa in July 2003 that was organized by the National Alliance of Black School Educators, of which he was president at the time. Hornsby's trip was paid for by the alliance's corporate sponsor, Plato Learning, which is now pursuing a major district-wide contract for algebra software in Prince George's.

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