Hornsby jurors hear opening statements

Former schools chief in corruption trial

October 18, 2007|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,sun reporter

GREENBELT -- Former Prince George's County Superintendent Andre J. Hornsby deprived citizens and the school board of his "honest services" by taking kickbacks on school system contracts and trying to cover up his actions when he learned that federal officials were investigating, prosecutors told jurors during opening statements in his corruption trial yesterday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Pauze told jurors they would get to see a surveillance tape of Hornsby stuffing $1,000 into his shirt pocket, money allegedly given to him by a school consultant, Cynthia Joffrion, who had become an FBI informant.

Prosecutors said Joffrion had a business relationship with Hornsby, with whom she had worked at school systems in Houston and Yonkers, N.Y.

The videotape also shows the two talking about ways to conceal $145,000 in payments to Hornsby - such as buying him antiques, artwork, a truck and property - rather than bringing him cash, Pauze told jurors. In addition, Pauze said, Hornsby got half of a $20,000 commission that his live-in girlfriend, Sienna Owens, received on the sale to the Prince George's County schools of nearly $1 million in educational software. The prosecutor said Hornsby steered the contract to her company.

Hornsby's attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, told jurors that Hornsby had done "an honest job" for the school system.

Hornsby, 54, has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, including mail and wire fraud, evidence tampering, witness tampering and obstruction of justice.

A surprise during opening statements in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte came when prosecutors revealed that they do not intend to call Joffrion as a witness. Joffrion had cooperated with federal investigators by wearing a wire and holding a secretly videotaped meeting with Hornsby at a Bowie hotel.

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein would not say why Joffrion is not being called.

"We were, frankly, shocked when they said they wouldn't call her," Bonsib said.

Hornsby was hired as Prince George's County superintendent in 2003 and resigned two years later with a $125,000 severance package.

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

In August 2006, a federal grand jury in Maryland charged Hornsby 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 up the crime.

The 16-count indictment alleges that he used his position to ensure that two companies were awarded lucrative school contracts in exchange for secret payments to him.

Pauze said Hornsby instructed school system personnel to work overtime to erase backup e-mail from the school district's computer system and directed Joffrion to get rid of his personal computer after she told him federal authorities had subpoenaed computers in her possession. Hornsby had previously sent his computer, which wasn't working, to Joffrion in Texas.

At one point, Pauze said, Hornsby sent his daughter to Florida with a prepaid cell phone and a handwritten note to Owens pleading with her not to cooperate with prosecutors.

The message to Owens, according to Pauze, read: "Remember if you say we conspired, we both go to jail."

In his opening statement, Bonsib signaled that he plans to attack the credibility of the two key witnesses against Hornsby.

He said that Owens didn't tell Hornsby she had collected a $20,000 commission from the sale of the educational software, and that some of Joffrion's early statements, made under oath, conflict with her later accounts.

Bonsib said that Joffrion's FBI handlers advised her how to set up Hornsby, and that her actions were carefully "scripted."

The defense lawyer portrayed Hornsby as a "hard-charging executive" who worked long hours to boost student test scores and straightened out the system's financial problems.

"He didn't do it all perfectly, but he did it honestly," Bonsib said. "There are two sides to this story at the end of the day."

The trial, which resumes today, is expected to last about six weeks.


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