The Prince George's school board launched a new probe of schools CEO Andre J. Hornsby last night after his girlfriend left an education software company she worked for after its inquiry into the handling of a $40,000 commission paid in a recent sale to the county.
LeapFrog SchoolHouse announced yesterday that it is no longer employing Sienna Owens, who was living with Hornsby when he approved the $1 million purchase in June, and another saleswoman, Debora Adam, who was assigned to the sale. On Tuesday, the company announced that its investigation of the commission turned up ethical violations that led to the resignation of its president, Bob Lally.
The company's actions intensified the scrutiny of the schools chief and his role in the purchase, which is under investigation by state and federal authorities. Last night, the school board met in closed session and voted unanimously to hire an independent investigator to examine Hornsby's dealings with LeapFrog and another education software company, Plato Learning.
Board Chairwoman Beatrice Tignor said after the meeting that Hornsby would not be placed on administrative leave, as is sometimes done during such investigations.
"He is still the CEO," she said. "He is the CEO today, he is the CEO tonight, and he will be the CEO tomorrow."
The vote came two weeks after Tignor declared the matter closed following a brief inquiry by the school system's ethics panel, which cleared Hornsby of any wrongdoing without interviewing him.
The board's decision last night followed calls by lawmakers yesterday for further investigation into Hornsby's role in the LeapFrog sale, which used federal funds earmarked for low-income schools to pay for laptop-like instructional toys and assessment software. Lawmakers said the departure of LeapFrog's president and the two saleswomen suggest that there was something amiss with the deal and that Hornsby's role should be re-examined.
"If they're firing the superintendent's significant other, ... it implies there was wrongdoing in the company in how this was handled. And it implies ... things were unacceptable in how it was handled at the school system," said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat.
A LeapFrog spokeswoman would not say whether the saleswomen resigned or were fired.
Hornsby's dealings with LeapFrog and other education vendors, first reported by The Sun nearly three months ago, are under investigation by the Maryland state prosecutor and the U.S. attorney's office and FBI.
The employees' exit follows assertions by everyone involved in the sale - the saleswomen, LeapFrog executives, and Hornsby and other school officials - that the sale was handled only by Adam.
Adam, the company's Maryland representative, said she received the full commission on the sale, estimated at about $40,000. Owens said she handled only Virginia sales and did not benefit financially from the deal. Hornsby, 51, said through spokesmen that his girlfriend, 26, did not play a role in the deal, one of the largest in the history of the $40 million-per-year Emeryville, Calif., company.
More recently, Lally acknowledged that Owens had received a major promotion to a $100,000-a-year national sales position after the sale and was no longer working only in Virginia, as she had said. He reasserted that Owens had no part in the Prince George's deal.
Owens and Adam did not return calls last night, and Hornsby, who has declined Sun requests for interviews, was unavailable for comment. Hornsby assumed the $250,000 job in the spring of 2003.
Asked about the departure of Owens, school system spokesman John White said it does not necessarily contradict assertions by Hornsby on his girlfriend's role. White said Hornsby had said that Owens did not play a part in his decision to buy LeapFrog, but that Hornsby had not directly addressed whether Owens benefited from the deal.
"The answer Dr. Hornsby gave was that he was not influenced by Sienna," White said.
In urging the school board to dig deeper, Pinsky suggested that it ask LeapFrog to share the findings of its inquiry, which he said was more thorough.
"I find it disheartening that the company involved in this deal has taken it more seriously than the county's Board of Education," he said. "They're trying to protect their company, their reputation and their shareholders, and it's incumbent that the Board of Education protect its stakeholders."
White said LeapFrog's findings of wrongdoing in the Prince George's deal did not necessarily call into question the ethics panel's clearing of Hornsby. (The panel also cleared Hornsby of wrongdoing in his acceptance from the education software company Plato Learning of a 10-day trip to South Africa in 2003 with the National Alliance of Black School Educators. Plato is seeking a major deal in Prince George's.)
In the LeapFrog deal, the ethics panel was looking only at whether Hornsby erred by not disclosing his relationship with Owens at the time of the sale, White said. The panel found that Hornsby did not need to note it on the disclosure form he signed in January because Owens did not start working at LeapFrog until the next month.
The question of whether Owens had received any benefit from the Prince George's sale was not part of what Tignor asked the ethics panel to examine, White said. Tignor made a similar argument last night.
LeapFrog "did their own investigation. They made a decision based on their own code of conduct," she said. "What LeapFrog does is not to be misconstrued [as] any action by any member of the Prince George's schools."
The distinction was rejected by Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat. It should be of central interest to the school board to determine whether Hornsby's approval of a big purchase was influenced by his girlfriend or benefited her in any way, he said.