The ethics panel of the Prince George's County school system has cleared Superintendent Andre J. Hornsby of any wrongdoing in his dealings with two education software vendors, after a two-month inquiry in which the panel interviewed neither Hornsby nor representatives of the companies.
The county is still awaiting the results of other inquiries into Hornsby's dealings with vendors, by the Maryland state prosecutor and by the FBI and Maryland U.S. attorney's office.
Meanwhile, Hornsby acted yesterday to head off questions on another front, regarding an education consulting business he had maintained the past four years. After receiving reporting inquiries this week about the business, Quality Schools Consulting Inc., Hornsby shut down yesterday the company's Web site, which advertised his services in several areas, including helping schools raise test scores and obtain government funding.
Before the Web site was shut down, system spokesman John White said the business had been "dormant" since Hornsby assumed the $250,000 CEO job in the spring of 2003. White said Hornsby has been maintaining the firm's incorporation in New York state only in case he should ever need to rely on the business for employment in the future.
"He refers to it as his fallback plan. If he's ever out of work, he can continue with his consultant work," White said.
But the company's Web site showed signs of recent activity: Its home page included an updated, prominent advertisement for helping schools obtain funding in the coming application period for the federal E-rate program, which pays for Internet wiring in schools.
The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into attempts by technology companies to defraud E-rate, a $2 billion-a-year program. Regulators have testified before Congress that those efforts involved an education organization that Hornsby is closely involved with, the National Alliance of Black School Educators, which they say funneled business to schools in return for a commission, in violation of program rules.
White said the consulting Web site was recently updated only because Hornsby "wants to keep his business current" and that the site's new advertisement did not mean the business was active. Even if Hornsby had been doing consulting work, that would not have violated his contract with Prince George's, White said.
"He's not doing any business, but that doesn't mean he can't keep his advertisement up to date and let people know it's still an existing company and that he is still able to consult should he be in a position to do so," White said.
White said Hornsby started the business in the summer of 2000 to tide him over while he was looking for work after he was fired from his superintendent's job in Yonkers, N.Y. But the business' Web site suggests that Hornsby continued his consulting work for at least two years after taking a $145,000 administrative job in the New York City schools in January 2001. The site claims that the company has obtained more than $21 million in E-rate funding for schools over three years.
New York City authorities said yesterday that the school department was unaware of Hornsby's consulting work. They said administrators were supposed to get official approval for outside work that might conflict with their city jobs.
"If he was doing something in violation, he did not receive a waiver from us for that," said Wayne Hawley, general counsel of the city's Conflict of Interest Board.
In Prince George's, the county's five-person ethics panel had been asked by the school board to examine Hornsby's acceptance of a 10-day trip to South Africa from the education software company Plato Learning, which is pursuing a major deal in the county. The panel also scrutinized Hornsby's failure to disclose that he was living with a saleswoman for another company, LeapFrog SchoolHouse, which sold the district $1 million in materials in June.
The findings of the panel, which is appointed by the school board, closely mirrored a letter written in defense of Hornsby by school board Chairwoman Beatrice Tignor six weeks ago.
According to White, the panel determined that Hornsby had informed the school board at the time of his hiring that he was going on the trip to South Africa in the summer of 2003 with the black educator alliance. The panel determined that Plato paid for Hornsby's trip - a detail that Hornsby did not mention to the board - only because he was the president of the alliance at the time, not to curry favor with the county.
The panel did not address a second trip Hornsby took to South Africa with the alliance this summer, when he was no longer president of the group.
White said the panel also found that Hornsby did not need to disclose his relationship with the LeapFrog saleswoman on the disclosure form he signed in January because the saleswoman was working then for a different education company that wasn't involved in a major district deal. The panel did recommend that county rules be revised to require amended disclosures by administrators for whom a possible conflict arises during the course of the year.
The chairwoman of the ethics panel, Doris A. Eugene, did not return calls for comment. But The Washington Post, which reported the panel's conclusions yesterday, quoted her as stating that the inquiry included interviews with district staff but not with Hornsby himself.
Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat and frequent critic of the school system, questioned how the panel could have scrutinized Hornsby's dealings with vendors without asking him about them.
"I can't believe it - they didn't talk to the man," Hubbard said. "It's a report on paper based on what they read on paper, that's all it is. How anybody can call this an investigation when they don't even have a face-to-face interview, I don't know."