GREENBELT -- When Andre J. Hornsby realized three years ago that he might be investigated for corruption during his tenure as Prince George's County school superintendent, he ordered a trail of e-mails deleted and warned his girlfriend that if she talked they would both go to jail, the woman testified in his trial yesterday.
Sienna Owens, who met Hornsby at an education conference six years ago, when he was 48 and she was 23, said she complied, to the point of lying to lawyers, a grand jury and a Sun reporter.
"I just wanted to do anything that he was suggesting," Owens said in U.S. District Court as she described what she said were Hornsby's efforts to hide the money trail. He warned her, she said, not to reveal that they had "conspired" or they would both go to jail.
Hornsby is on trial on charges of taking kickbacks in return for steering contracts for educational materials to two companies, including one that employed Owens, with whom he lived in his three-story townhouse in Mitchellville. In the incident involving Owens, a witness for the prosecution, Hornsby is accused of accepting half of a $20,000 commission she received for a deal worth almost $1 million that he had initiated.
Earlier, Owens' right hand trembled as she was sworn in. She was asked by prosecutor Stuart A. Berman to point to Hornsby, sitting less than 10 feet away. She did, but resolutely avoided his gaze for the rest of the six hours she spent on the stand.
While there was no testimony that indicated Hornsby had demanded a share of Owens' commission, she said on the stand that she had shared it with him - placing $10,000 in cash on their bed - because she "had a 50-50 mentality."
"This was the first time I had been compensated for something that he had helped me with," Owens said. "It was a big thank-you gesture."
She watched him pick up the money and, without a word, "put it away" in his walk-in closet, she testified. "He didn't mention it and didn't try to give it back."
But when a Sun reporter called her in October 2004 and asked about her role and his in the $1 million deal, Hornsby was "furious" that she had taken the call, she said, even though she had deflected the questions by saying she did not have a role in the deal and did not benefit financially from it.
"He got enraged and mad that I'd spoken to a reporter," Owens recalled. "He was really upset."
She said Hornsby was even more enraged when the article ran in The Sun on Oct. 14, 2004. It said that when Prince George's County public schools spent almost $1 million in federal Title I funds to buy LeapFrog SchoolHouse's LeapPads, laptop-like teaching toys for early literacy, and LeapTrack assessment software meant to help teachers track student progress, Hornsby "did not disclose his close personal relationship with a company saleswoman."
Almost immediately, she said, Hornsby began trying to cover their tracks. She said he told her to delete all e-mail messages that involved him and the deal from her laptop, and said he would have a computer technician do the same with similar e-mails in the school district's system.
Hornsby asked her to change her address so that she would no longer receive mail at his house, she said.
Shortly afterward, she went on, "he wanted me to get out of the house." Indeed, he wanted her gone from Maryland, she said, and found a condominium for her to buy in Miami Beach, Fla. She did, with the help of $5,000 that he gave her as part of a deposit.
Hornsby also got rid of the desktop computer they had both used in the Mitchellville townhouse, she said. They maintained a relationship for a time, she said, traveling to the Bahamas together after she was fired from her job at LeapFrog in December 2004.
But when it became clear the deal was being investigated by the FBI, she said, Hornsby urged her "to stick to the story" and "not to say that I'd given any money to him."
Finally, the night before she was to testify before a grand jury investigating the case, in August last year, Hornsby called Owens at the Greenbelt Marriott, she said, and yelled at her.
"He wanted to make sure that I didn't say anything that indicated that I'd in fact given him half the money," she said, fighting back tears.
She said she had expected an apology from him for putting her in such a dire situation, she said, but received none. He told her again that she had not done anything wrong, Owens testified.
"I told him I had done something wrong, that we had both done something wrong," she remembered replying. "I was going to tell the truth." With that, she hung up on him, she said.
Nonetheless, she acknowledged being untruthful to the grand jury.
Also in August last year, Owens pleaded guilty to a count of "corruptly endeavoring to impede Internal Revenue laws" by failing to declare and pay taxes on the $20,000 commission. She could receive three years in prison and a $250,000 fine, a sentence that might be reduced if she is deemed to have testified truthfully in Hornsby's trial.
Related coverage at baltimoresun.com/hornsby