Balto. schools chief probing allegations

Questions involve deputy's chartered fishing trip

May 24, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland announced last night that she is investigating "alleged improprieties" by her senior staff, as accusations surfaced that top deputies tried to use school system money to charter a boat and drank alcohol inside system headquarters.

Vowing that the investigation will be "swift and thorough," Copeland said the system has worked hard in recent months to regain public confidence and does not want to do anything to jeopardize that.

"We have no tolerance, absolutely none, I can't stress that enough, for anything that undermines that trust," she said, her voice shaking, at a televised school board meeting.

The incident that sparked the dispute occurred Friday, when Chief Operating Officer Eric Letsinger chartered a boat and took 10 school system and city employees fishing on the Chesapeake Bay.

Letsinger said he used his own money to pay for the daylong, $1,600 trip, and the people who attended all took vacation time to do so.

"I have nothing to hide here," said Letsinger, one of Copeland's top four deputies. "It's just frustrating that I'm even talking to you about my vacation."

Letsinger acknowledged that he planned to expense the trip to the school system when its purpose initially was strategic planning and team building - a legitimate use of public funds, he said. But he said the trip evolved into a day to just relax, and he decided he would pay for it himself.

But questions remained about whether Letsinger or others involved in the trip submitted the paperwork for the system to pay for it. Letsinger said he did not remember at what point he decided not to charge the trip to the system.

While the fishing trip was taking place on Friday, a former school system employee went on WOLB-AM radio's State of the City program and alleged that the school system had cut a check for the trip. The former employee provided specific information about the transaction, including the account from which the money was taken. Letsinger said that information was incorrect.

Letsinger said the trip was designed to reward employees who have been putting in extremely long hours, for which they do not receive extra compensation, and bring them together as a team.

"I'm a big fan of raising the level of expectations of people," he said. To do that, he added, "you use the carrot and the stick. ... What I felt that my team needed was a full-on day off goofing around."

He said he did not consult Copeland about the trip, saying it was not a decision significant enough to require her approval.

Asked whether disciplinary action had been taken against Letsinger, system officials initially said that they couldn't comment on a personnel matter but later last night said that no action had been taken.

Former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV said at the board meeting that any employees who misused public funds for a fishing trip "should immediately submit their resignation," and the school system should give prosecutors the information they have about the incident.

"All this is alleged, but it needs to be handled in an appropriate manner and not swept under the rug," Mitchell said.

A former deputy commissioner of Baltimore's housing department, Letsinger became the city schools' chief operating officer a year ago. He is widely seen as an ally of Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor.

In many of the departments he oversees, he has implemented O'Malley's signature employee accountability system, where job performance is constantly monitored through the use of statistics. Letsinger has hired other city employees for key positions in the school system.

As the dispute over the fishing trip played out, O'Malley, school board members and news media outlets this week received an anonymous letter outlining nine allegations of "willful and abusive spending" and other misconduct among senior school staff. One of the allegations said senior staff members have "on several occasions" consumed beer in the school system's headquarters, and blamed custodians when empty containers were discovered.

School system spokeswoman Edie House said the system will investigate all allegations. In public comments at last night's meeting, school board Chairman Brian D. Morris said the employees being investigated will be afforded due process.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said last night that the mayor has confidence "that the school system will thoroughly investigate this and take disciplinary action if necessary."

Letsinger oversees school maintenance and construction, police, transportation and food services. His employees have been working in recent months to close several school buildings and on contracts to provide schools with energy-efficient upgrades.

A city Department of Public Works employee who has worked with the school system on the energy contracts attended the boat trip, Letsinger said. The other people who attended all work for him, he said.

The allegations come amid continuing work by officials to repair the school system's image in the wake of a crippling financial crisis two years ago. When the new fiscal year begins July 1, officials say, the system will be free of a deficit for the first time in seven years.

In light of that history, the fact that system officials would have even considered using public funds for a staff retreat had some in the community outraged.

"That kind of thinking will lead us right back into a budget crisis," said Tyrone Powers, an education activist who hosts a radio show on WEAA-FM and has been a frequent guest on WOLB. "If they need to bond or they need to get away, there are some expense-free trips they could take. They could go out to one of the local parks."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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