The head of the Prince George's County schools had a well-documented record of questionable relations with education vendors when he was a superintendent in New York state, foreshadowing the problems that have made him the focus of a county ethics investigation.
Prince George's school board members say they were at least partly aware of the accusations leveled against Chief Executive Officer Andre J. Hornsby in connection with his two-year tenure in Yonkers, N.Y. But they dismissed them as insignificant in deciding to hire him in the spring of last year.
The same board members have begun an ethics inquiry into Hornsby's actions in Prince George's, and state legislators have called for further investigation by state auditors.
Since arriving in Maryland, Hornsby has accepted at least one trip to South Africa from one company and approved a $1 million purchase of education software from another company that employs a saleswoman who lives with him.
According to a public report by the Yonkers inspector general, Hornsby accepted a trip to the Ryder Club Golf Tournament, valued at about $2,200, from Xerox Corp. two months after awarding the company a $4.3 million copier contract in 1999.
The report found that the contract cost the district $2 million more than a competing bid.
Dismissed in 2000
The report, released several months after Hornsby was dismissed by the Yonkers school board in 2000, also found Hornsby had kept a Palm Pilot he won from Xerox at a drawing six months before the contract award and, after the contract was signed, Xerox paid his way to two conferences at which he spoke on the company's behalf.
Another inspector general report, released in August 2001, called into question Hornsby's actions during Yonkers' $8.4 million purchase of computers from Apple Computer Inc. in 1998. The report found that Hornsby had gotten Apple to donate computers to the National Alliance of Black School Educators, a group that Hornsby is active in, in return for Yonkers making the large Apple purchase.
Conflicts of interest
Questions about conflicts of interest have also arisen in connection with Hornsby's interactions with vendors in Prince George's. The Sun reported this week that Hornsby, 51, presided over a $1 million education software purchase from LeapFrog SchoolHouse in June, while failing to disclose that he lives with company saleswoman Sienna Owens, 26.
A school system spokeswoman has said Hornsby's relationship with Owens did not influence the deal, which the company said was completed by another salesperson.
The Sun also reported that Hornsby went on a trip in 2003 to South Africa with the black educator alliance that was paid for by Plato Learning, which is seeking a big algebra software contract in Prince George's. He went on the trip again this summer; he has declined to say whether Plato also paid for it.
Yonkers school board members and others who worked with Hornsby in New York said this week that they were not surprised by questions about Hornsby's vendor dealings in Prince George's. Hornsby led the Yonkers schools until being dismissed in 2000 after clashes with the teachers union and mayor, among others.
Steve Frey, president of the Yonkers teachers union, chuckled when informed of the revelations in Prince George's.
"I'm laughing because it sounds so familiar," said Frey, who tangled often with Hornsby. "When he was here, [conflict of interest with vendors] was a problem. We've had a lot of superintendents in my career, and I don't recall any such situations before Dr. Hornsby."
Yonkers school board member Thomas Weibrecht, who argued for Hornsby's hiring from the Houston school system in 1998 but later voted to dismiss him, was also unsurprised.
"The fact that he is not here anymore should speak volumes," Weibrecht said. "I'll pretty much leave it at that."
Prince George's school board members say they knew about questions raised by Hornsby's interactions with vendors in Yonkers when the board hired him away from a position in the New York City schools in the spring of 2003.
But they said the board did not deem the issues serious enough to disqualify Hornsby for the $250,000 job, which he was offered based on his reputation for raising test scores and implementing aggressive reforms.
"At the end, there was no impropriety, from what we looked at," said Chairwoman Beatrice Tignor. "If Dr. Hornsby had stock in Xerox and had not disclosed it, that would be a reason to be concerned."
Tignor said the board did not actually read the reports produced by Inspector General Philip A. Zisman but instead relied on background reports on Hornsby compiled by a search firm hired by the county. Several board members went to Yonkers to talk with officials there about Hornsby, she said.
"We had all kinds of research done into his background," she said, "and it said that his behavior had been aboveboard and beyond reproach."
'Close to the line'
Others in Prince George's say that school board members should have taken Hornsby's vendor interactions in Yonkers into greater account.
"There's a pattern with this guy," said Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat who is calling for stricter financial disclosures by school administrators to avoid conflicts. "It's a pattern of his being very close to the ethical line ... with the contracts he's signed."
Doris A. Reed, executive director of the Prince George's school administrators union, said her group had warned the school board of Hornsby's history with vendors last spring, when it, along with other unions, opposed Hornsby's hiring.
"All this stuff is stuff we told the board about. They knew all about it, but the board ignored everyone," Reed said.
A call to a system spokesman seeking comment on Hornsby's Yonkers tenure was not returned. But Hornsby defended himself against Zisman's charges in December 2000 when the Xerox report appeared.
The report concluded that Hornsby's dealings with Xerox "violated state ethics laws and Yonkers Board of Education policies and procedures." The report found that the district's analysis of the bids was flawed and that Hornsby had given Xerox more chances to present its products than he offered a competing firm, Minolta.
The Xerox selection, the report said, "was not based on a fair and honest competitive process."
Threat of lawsuit
At the time, Hornsby's lawyer called the Xerox charges "character assassination" and said Hornsby was considering a $25 million defamation suit against the district, which Yonkers officials say never happened.
Hornsby said then that he chose Xerox because its bid was better suited to the district. He told the Journal News, a local newspaper, that he accepted the Ryder Cup trip in exchange for speaking engagements he performed without compensation on behalf of Xerox to highlight Yonkers' use of technology.
"You don't throw away a career for peanuts," he told the Journal News.
"If you saw a [Lamborghini] Countache sitting in my driveway with a Xerox logo, then maybe you could say I took something."