Seeing not believing in case of Hornsby

November 30, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

It's not quite up there with the classic of the genre, the she-set-me-up tape that captured then-D.C. Mayor Marion Berry smoking crack in a hotel room.

No, the gotcha tape of Andre J. Hornsby pocketing $1,000 from a government contractor in a room at the Bowie Comfort Inn isn't quite so dramatic. In fact, it's the casualness of the scene - the former Prince George's County schools superintendent actually says "whatever" when the contractor tries to confirm how much more she owes him for steering government business her way - that is the most remarkable thing about it.

Another day, another thou. Ho-hum.

Still, for whatever it lacks in production values or a slam-bang ending - no FBI agents storm in with handcuffs as they do in the Barry tape - the footage does show Hornsby taking cash from someone who has received a government contract. And yet jurors who saw it couldn't agree on a verdict on any of the 16 counts in the public corruption case against Hornsby, so it ends in a mistrial and he goes free?

Amazing. Or maybe not: As The Sun has documented over the years, Hornsby repeatedly has been accused of personally profiting from his work as a public schools official, and yet he has managed, time and again, to get away with it. Maybe it was too much to expect a jury to do what various levels of the government have failed to do over the years.

Let's roll our own tape, shall we, and review all the missed opportunities and dropped balls in the Hornsby saga.

The school board that brought him to Maryland in the first place?

The Prince George's County board hired him in 2003, despite the fact that he had been fired from his previous job as the schools chief in Yonkers, N.Y. There, the inspector general found that he had accepted trips and gifts from vendors who were awarded contracts to supply the school system with computers and copiers.

"There was no impropriety," the Prince George's board chairwoman said, "from what we looked at."

So Hornsby is hired, for $250,000 a year.

How about the school system's ethics panel?

It investigated Hornsby after The Sun revealed in 2004 that the school system purchased a $1 million software package from LeapFrog SchoolHouse, a company that happened to employ Hornsby's live-in girlfriend - a relationship he failed to disclose at the time.

But without interviewing Hornsby or LeapFrog representatives, the panel cleared him of wrongdoing.

What about the Maryland State Department of Education?

Hornsby resigned from his post in 2005, just before an audit would reveal that, despite what he initially said, his girlfriend did receive a commission for the LeapFrog sale - and had split half of it with him. Despite this, and the fact that he remained under investigation by the FBI, the state education department approved his application to offer after-school tutoring services to Prince George's and Baltimore City schools.

"We can't not move forward with the application," a state official said, "because he is under investigation."

The feds, how about the feds?

Finally, last year, a federal grand jury indicted Hornsby, charging that he steered lucrative contracts to not just to LeapFrog but also to a non-existent company called E-Rate Manager, headed by a longtime associate, the mysterious Cynthia Joffrion, with whom he had worked over the course of a career that took him from Houston to Yonkers to Prince George's County.

Joffrion became a government informant - something she had also done in New York, where Hornsby was also investigated - and helped the FBI tape him numerous times in Maryland, including that December 2004 meeting in the Bowie hotel room where she gave him $1,000. That, prosecutors say, was the down payment of what ultimately would be a $145,000 kickback for sending a government contract her way.

Interesting, but also mysterious because prosecutors never put Joffrion herself on the stand - something that Hornsby's defense made much of, and something that some jurors apparently also found odd.

"I think that could be a factor," said Byron Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor who has no connection to the case. Warnken said that prosecutors risk leaving an unanswered question in jurors' minds by showing a tape of Joffrion allegedly giving a bribe to Hornsby, but not bringing Joffrion in the flesh to the courtroom. "Speaking from afar," he said, "my guess is the jurors think, why did they do this? Is it entrapment?"

Tapes apparently only go so far. Even Marion Barry, subject of that infamous tape, was found guilty of only one misdemeanor drug possession charge and acquitted of another, but jurors couldn't reach a verdict on the 12 remaining ones.


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