Hornsby fraud trial to open

Ex-Pr. George's schools chief accused of taking kickbacks, cover-up

Sun follow-up

October 15, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN REPORTER

Almost three years ago, the FBI informant brainstormed with Prince George's County Superintendent Andre J. Hornsby over how best to disguise a secret payment to the head of Maryland's second-largest school system.

Buy him some land? A truck? Art? A yacht?

While Hornsby worried about federal investigators already on his tail, the informant, former employee Cynthia Joffrion, handed him a $1,000 down payment in a Bowie hotel room.

"If I give you cash ... in this room ... how in the [expletive] are they going to know that?" she reassured Hornsby during the Dec. 20, 2004, meeting. "I'm not telling anybody. I'm not going to jail."

"Me either," Hornsby replied as he pocketed the cash.

The taped exchange, quoted by prosecutors in recently filed court papers, is likely to become a centerpiece in Hornsby's public corruption trial, which is scheduled to start tomorrow in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

"We're expecting a trial, and it should be a good trial, because we have two of our best prosecutors on the case," Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said last week.

With jury selection scheduled for tomorrow, opening statements could begin Wednesday. The trial is expected to last about six weeks.

Hornsby, who joined the school district in 2003 and resigned two years later with a $125,000 severance package, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Robert C. Bonsib, Hornsby's attorney, said, "There is another side to each and every one of the government's allegations," but he declined to answer specific questions about the case.

"We're looking forward to having our day in court," he said, "particularly after we have had to endure two years of public allegations without having a proper forum to address them."

The Sun raised questions in 2004 about Hornsby's relationship with an educational software firm where his live-in girlfriend worked. At the time, he had not disclosed to Prince George's officials that he lived with Sienna Owens, who worked for LeapFrog SchoolHouse, a company that received a $1 million contract with Hornsby's school district.

Working on that information, the FBI apparently enlisted Joffrion's help as an undercover informant against Hornsby.

But the role was hardly new to her. Court papers filed recently in Greenbelt show that Joffrion helped prosecutors in Westchester County, N.Y., tape Hornsby when he served as superintendent of the Yonkers school district and was suspected of computer theft.

In August 2006, a federal grand jury in Maryland charged Hornsby, 54, with orchestrating an elaborate scheme to award school contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to financially benefit himself and ordering school officials to destroy evidence to cover the crime.

The 16-count indictment charging Hornsby with mail and wire fraud, evidence tampering, witness tampering and obstruction of justice, alleges that he used his influential position to ensure that two companies were awarded lucrative school contracts in exchange for secret payments to him.

One of them was E-Rate Manager, a "nonexistent" company headed by Joffrion, who is cooperating with federal authorities, according to the indictment. The other was LeapFrog SchoolHouse, a supplier of educational products for which his live-in girlfriend, Owens, worked in sales.

Based on court filings, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael R. Pauze and Stuart A. Berman plan to use Hornsby's own words against him. They quoted excepts from his testimony to an independent school auditor, alleging that he lied about his knowledge of the kickback deal outlined in the indictment.

Prosecutors said Hornsby told Prince George's school personnel to destroy e-mail that might have implicated him criminally and attempted to identify and evade telephone and law enforcement surveillance.

In one example of alleged obstruction of justice, prosecutors say that Joffrion, while working for the FBI, told Hornsby in February 2005 that she had received subpoenas for computer files. Prosecutors allege that the former Prince George's public schools chief tried to persuade her not to turn over the files.

"No. You told me the thing was clean. It was dead," Hornsby said to Joffrion, according to court papers.

"Yeah, but I told you I brought the hard drive back," Joffrion replied.

Hornsby then insisted that she get rid of the computer completely, according to prosecutors.

Built on clandestinely recorded meetings between a target and an informant, the case has shades of the recent bribery prosecution of former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, who pleaded guilty after a judge released transcripts of profanity-laced recordings of the ex-politician speaking to an undercover FBI informant.

But in this case, prosecutors intend to show that Hornsby's questionable practices began long before he arrived in Prince George's County.

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