Friend of former schools chief pleads guilty

In entering plea on tax charge, woman admits role in Prince George's scheme tied to contract steering

November 04, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

The former live-in girlfriend of the ex-schools chief in Prince George's County pleaded guilty to a tax charge in federal court yesterday, admitting that she and Andre J. Hornsby schemed to share the profits from a contract that he allegedly steered.

The charge against Sienna Rochelle Owens, 28, involved her failure to declare as taxable income the commission that she received from a technology contract with the county school system.

After articles in The Sun questioned his administration of one of the nation's largest school districts, Hornsby, 53, was indicted in August on charges of mail and wire fraud, witness and evidence tampering, and obstruction of justice.

He has pleaded not guilty.

If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison on the most serious count in the indictment.

"The government has given Ms. Owens a very sweet deal to encourage her to join their team," Hornsby's attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, said yesterday. "Dr. Hornsby's position is the same as it has always been. He knows that it is always tough for one man to fight the federal government and win. But that is exactly what he intends to do."

In 2004, according to court documents, Owens, who now lives in Miami Beach, Fla., worked for LeapFrog Enterprises Inc., which developed and marketed technology-based educational products to retail stores and schools.

At the time, Hornsby was chief executive officer of the Prince George's public schools, which had a budget of more than $1 billion.

In May 2004, the county school system established a summer program for kindergarten pupils who were being held back, and Hornsby suggested the use of LeapFrog products for the summer program, according to court documents.

After receiving a LeapFrog proposal, system personnel recommended using its program for about 33 classrooms. But Hornsby intervened at this point, according to prosecutors

Owens admitted in court papers that even though she worked for the company's Virginia office, she began preparing a larger proposal for the LeapFrog system to cover 216 classrooms in Prince George's. Owens and Hornsby negotiated a deal that required the county to pay $956,280, according to prosecutors.

LeapFrog generally paid sales commissions to its local representative.

Nevertheless, to personally benefit from the LeapFrog contract, Owens negotiated to receive a $20,000 commission.

After receiving the commission, Owens withdrew $10,000 from her account and provided the cash to Hornsby in return for his assistance in securing the LeapFrog contract, court papers say.

She never mentioned the payment on a tax return that she filed for that year, according to court papers.

Owens could be sentenced to a maximum penalty of three years in prison followed by a year of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

But the terms of her plea agreement are likely to substantially reduce any penalties against her if she continues to cooperate with prosecutors preparing for trial against Hornsby.

No date has been set for Owens' sentencing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. Her attorney, William C. Brennan Jr., did not return a telephone call yesterday seeking comment.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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