Hornsby retrial begins

Ex-Prince George's school chief accused of fraud, tampering

June 19, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

GREENBELT - The courtroom was filled with familiar faces. The judge, the two prosecutors, the defense attorney and the defendant - all had faced each other before. The only thing different was the jury.

As the retrial of former Prince George's County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby got under way yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Pauze made the same broad-stroke accusations that he had at Hornsby's previous trial, which ended in November with a deadlocked jury.

But Pauze, in an encore he had not envisaged, appeared determined yesterday to establish a firmer, more credible case, to drive his points home with greater clarity, lest a similar fate befall Hornsby's new trial.

The defendant, he said, corrupted his office with "secret kickbacks," backroom deals, cover-ups and conflicts of interest after determining that his $250,000 annual salary "just wasn't enough" for the lifestyle he was seeking. In a conversation taped by investigators and played at his first trial, Hornsby is heard expressing a desire for antique cars, art and a 40-foot yacht.

In an opening statement lasting some 70 minutes in U.S. District Court, Pauze laid out the core of the 22-count indictment against Hornsby, who is accused of mail and wire fraud, evidence tampering, witness tampering and obstruction of justice.

According to the indictment, Hornsby had tried to enrich himself through closed-door deals with a longtime business partner and with a saleswoman for an educational materials company who was also his live-in girlfriend at the time - a fact he is accused of hiding from his staff and school board members who approved the deals.

The prosecutor said Hornsby orchestrated a "steadfast effort to hide the truth," including ordering subordinates to erase incriminating e-mails and telling his business partner, Cynthia Joffrion, to "get rid" of a computer hard-drive that might have contained damaging information about their dealings.

"We're here today because he failed," Pauze said of Hornsby, who was indicted by a grand jury Aug. 22, 2006, on charges that he accepted kickbacks from his girlfriend, Sienna Owens, a saleswoman who worked with LeapFrog SchoolHouse, and from Joffrion, who ran a consultancy she co-owned with Hornsby in Texas. Questions about the financial arrangement between Hornsby and Owens first came to light in a series of articles in The Sun in 2004, and a federal investigation followed.

Owens later pleaded guilty to failing to disclose to the IRS her earnings from the deal, and she agreed to cooperate with federal agents against Hornsby. She testified for the prosecution in the first trial and is expected to do so again.

But Joffrion will not, just as she was not questioned in the first trial, despite cooperating during the investigation of Hornsby.

In his opening statement, Hornsby's attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, made much of the prosecution's admission that Joffrion would not be present, and used it to impugn the government's case, which he called "gobbledygook."

Bonsib said an FBI agent had described Joffrion as a "high-maintenance" informant who "did not always follow instructions" and failed, in her conversations with Hornsby, to consistently use a cell phone that had been wired for the purpose by investigators.

"This case isn't a case," Bonsib told the jury. "You need to ask why the United States of America will not provide for us the whole picture."

Bonsib said prosecutors had "cherry-picked" what he called "snippets" of evidence and presented them out of context "as a way of saying what was going on here."

Owens, he said, will provide the jurors with "a remarkable Alice in Wonderland story" about her transactions with Hornsby, who had inherited a $30 million deficit when he arrived in Prince George's County in the fall of 2003. Despite such difficulties, Bonsib said, Hornsby was "a man totally committed to his job" and wanted only to "bring the kids along" and improve their academic performance.

"There was no intent," the lawyer said, "to defraud the Prince George's County school system."

Hornsby had been hired with a "squeaky clean and stellar background," Bonsib said, without mentioning to the jury that Hornsby had been fired from his previous job as school chief in Yonkers, N.Y., during a corruption investigation.

"Goodness knows, none of us is perfect," Bonsib said. Mentioning in particular a $10,000 kickback Hornsby is accused of accepting, the attorney conceded that his client will be "in big trouble" if the jury concludes he had taken the money.

The day's proceedings did not begin smoothly. Before the jury entered, U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte received a note from a juror with said he had a high temperature and might be forced to make frequent trips to the bathroom. The juror was excused from the jury. But then the judge received another note from a juror, this one a woman who said she was claustrophobic and that the jury room "is too small and has too many people in it."

"It makes me hyperventilate," said the woman, who was also dismissed.

While waiting for the remaining jurors and alternates, an obviously irritated Messitte zeroed in on a noise in the courtroom and determined it came from where Hornsby was sitting.

"You want to change that squeaky chair?" he asked. "It's going to drive us all nuts. I think the government put it there."


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