Baltimore County school leaders say convicted official had no influence over school system contracts

Baltimore County school officials said Monday they don’t believe their contracting with outside businesses was compromised despite the conviction of a high-ranking school system employee, who pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges.

But a state legislator and several County Council members said it is time for the board to take a closer look into whether contracts were given to companies because of special relationships with staff.

Robert Barrett, who had worked since 2010 for the school system as a community and government liaison, has been under investigation by the FBI since 2013, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court. He pleaded guilty in September to tax-evasion charges stemming from a bribery scheme, records show.

School system and county leaders say they were not informed by prosecutors of the investigation or the guilty plea. As a result, they said, Barrett continued to work until last week, when he retired.

Barrett is accused, in part, of failing to report as income thousands of dollars in bribes he took from FBI undercover agents posing as out-of-town businessmen looking for “opportunities” here.

Prosecutors allege that from 2011 to 2013, Barrett received $37,500 from two local businessmen who are not named in court documents. In 2013, the FBI had undercover employees pose as out-of-town businessmen, who paid Barrett another $22,000 in cash in exchange for Barrett’s writing recommendations on school system stationery praising their company’s work, according to the plea agreement. The fake businesses had not done any actual work with the school system.

Asked for comment Monday, school board president Edward J. Gilliss said he is “wholly confident” that Barrett did not influence the award of any school system contracts because Barrett “did not have any role in any manner” in the purchasing process.

Mychael Dickerson, chief of staff for School Superintendent Verletta White, agreed. “Barrett had no decision-making role or authority to deal with contracts or purchasing in the school system. Simply stated, he was not part of the process,” Dickerson said. He noted that White has called for an audit of school system technology contracts, though one has not yet been launched.

But state Sen. James Brochin said the school board needs to take a “time out” and delay pending contract awards, especially given the indictment of former superintendent Dallas Dance. Dance is expected to go on trial this week on four counts of perjury for failing to disclose $147,000 in consulting income he received from companies and other interests while working for the school system.

“These are warning signs that something else had been going on,” Brochin, a Democrat who is running for county executive, said of Barrett’s guilty plea and the charges against Dance. Brochin urged the board to postpone a vote Tuesday night on a contract worth more than $100 million to provide laptops to students and teachers.

“Shame on you if you don’t take it seriously, and spend the taxpayers’ money on things that may have been tainted,” Brochin said.

Some members of the County Council said the latest revelations underscore the need for an independent audit of all of the school system’s contracts. Council members already have asked state lawmakers to greenlight an audit by the Office of Legislative Audits in Annapolis. Councilman Wade Kach said Monday he’s drafting a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan asking the Maryland State Department of Education to initiate an audit.

 

“I wonder what’s going to be the next shoe to fall?” asked Kach, a Cockeysville Republican.

 

Councilman Todd Crandell said he was shocked to learn about Barrett’s guilty plea and concerned that there might be more wrongdoing in the school system that needs to be uncovered.

 

“There’s millions of dollars of contracts that have been executed and we don’t know if they were on the up-and-up or not. And people deserve to know this,” said Crandell, a Dundalk Republican.

 

Crandell said an independent audit -- not one paid for by the county school system -- would go a long way toward restoring the public’s trust in the school system, which has been shaken with the Barrett guilty plea, the indictment of Dance and other issues. “We just don’t know: Are these isolated incidents or is this the tip of the iceberg?” Crandell said.

But County Council Chairman Julian Jones said he did not think an audit or investigation was warranted, since the Office of the State Prosecutor and the FBI have already investigated issues involving the school system. “I don’t see the need for an additional audit,” said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.

Jones also said he was “shocked and saddened” to learn of Barrett’s guilty plea.

Council members had regular dealings with Barrett, who served as their liaison to the school system. When constituents called council members with problems in the schools, the council members would consult with Barrett. Barrett also regularly attended County Council meetings. He is listed as a member of the staff of the school system’s foundation.

 

“It blows me away to think that for four-and-a-half, five years, I’ve been dealing with someone who was caught taking bribes, and he’s been allowed to work for all that time,” Kach said.

Barrett came to the school system after a long career in politics and government. He was director of the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation under former County Executive Jim Smith from 2003 to 2010. Barrett also worked as an adviser and campaign manager for former County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who is now serving his eighth term in Congress.

When County Executive Kevin Kamenetz took office in 2010, Barrett took a job with the school system.

“Mr. Barrett was not employed by me and the only contact he would have had with my administration was in his role with the Education Foundation,” Kamenetz said. “We are not aware of any contacts he might otherwise claim.”

Prosecutors allege that Barrett underreported his income on his tax returns in 2011, 2012 and 2013. They say some of his income “was derived from criminal activity.”

As part of a plea agreement, Barrett pleaded guilty in September to a felony charge of filing a false tax return. The plea was first made public last week by Maryland Matters, a nonprofit news site.

Sentencing is scheduled for May. Barrett faces up to three years in prison and a fine of $250,000 or twice the amount of money involved in the case, whichever is greater, according to the plea agreement.

Dance is accused of failing to report nearly $147,000 in consulting income on financial disclosure forms. According to the State Prosecutor’s Office, Dance’s outside income included $90,000 he was paid by a firm called SUPES Academy at the same time he negotiated a no-bid contract between the company and the school system in 2012.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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