Prince George's schools CEO to face ethics probe

Legislators call for review of contracts with vendors

October 15, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The head of the Prince George's County schools faces an ethics inquiry and state legislators are calling for additional action in response to questions raised by CEO Andre J. Hornsby's dealings with education software companies.

Chairwoman Beatrice P. Tignor said yesterday that the school board has asked the system's ethics panel to conduct an inquiry into Hornsby's participation in a 10-day trip to South Africa in the summer of 2003 with the National Alliance of Black School Educators. As The Sun reported last month, the trip was paid for by Plato Learning, a Minnesota-based education software company that is pursuing a districtwide contract in Prince George's.

Tignor said board members are discussing whether to also refer to the ethics panel questions surrounding Hornsby's dealings with another software company, LeapFrog SchoolHouse, which sold the county $1 million in classroom equipment in June. The Sun reported yesterday that Hornsby did not disclose before the sale that he has a close personal relationship with a LeapFrog saleswoman, who lives with him in Mitchellville.

State legislators called for an independent review of the county's contracts with vendors and more stringent personal financial disclosures by Maryland school system leaders to prevent conflicts of interest.

LeapFrog also is investigating, the California-based company said yesterday.

"LeapFrog is concerned about any potential conflict of interest, including the appearance of impropriety," said Cherie Stewart, senior director of corporate communications. "We are looking into the situation in response to the information contained in [The Sun] today. If necessary, further action may be taken and the matter will be handled internally."

Tignor said the board voted in a private session to refer questions regarding the South Africa trip. She said the board hasn't had time to decide whether to also refer the LeapFrog matter to the ethics panel, composed of five community members appointed by the board.

"I'm more than confident that the board will do the reasoned and rational thing in any issue that involves allegations raised by anyone," she said. "We'll do the right thing."

Neither Hornsby nor board members addressed the questions regarding his dealings with software vendors during the public portion of a regular board meeting held yesterday. Hornsby left the meeting without taking questions from reporters.

Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat, said he is drafting legislation to try to prevent conflicts of interest on the part of county school superintendents, in response to revelations of Hornsby's interactions with education vendors.

Hubbard, the House liaison to the Prince George's schools and a frequent critic of the school board, said the legislation would require superintendents and other school officials with purchasing authority to fill out detailed financial disclosure forms with the state ethics commission, as legislators and other top state officials must do. It's not enough, he said, for superintendents to fill out disclosure forms at the county level.

Hornsby's county disclosure form, Hubbard noted, made no mention of his relationship with an education vendor representative. The form also made no mention of the 2003 trip to South Africa. On his form, signed in January, he stated that in his previous capacity as president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, he had a "professional relationship with many of the companies that do business" with the county but added, "I have never received any gifts or money from these companies."

This was insufficient disclosure, said Hubbard, who said he was planning to ask legislative auditors to review all county spending on education vendors during the past several years.

"If I went on a trip to South Africa as an elected official with someone who did business with the state, a special prosecutor would be at my door, and I don't know what makes the schools CEO and the school board so different," he said. "With most school officials, I'm sure they have an ethical relationship to the business they do, but it's too much from a public standpoint to assume that."

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, another Prince George's Democrat, said he was considering introducing Hubbard's proposal in the Senate while also looking for other ways to more closely regulate school officials' dealings with education vendors. The risk of abuses in those interactions will only rise, he said, as vendors intensify their marketing in an effort to capitalize on the pressures of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"It clearly concerns me - not only [Hornsby's] actions but also the response of the board," he said. "You have to go out of the way to make things look above board and professional when using public dollars."

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