FBI agents seized documents and computer files yesterday from the office of Prince George's County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby as part of an investigation into his dealings with education vendors.
The seizure was the first outward sign of the inquiry launched last fall into Hornsby's vendor dealings, including his purchase of $1 million in software from a company that employed his live-in girlfriend as a saleswoman. The agents' unannounced visit, made while Hornsby was out of town, caught schools officials off guard.
"For me, this was a surprise. ... They never contacted me, and I never knew what was going on," said school board Chairwoman Beatrice P. Tignor, who has vigorously defended Hornsby for months amid questions about his vendor dealings. "As soon as we can get [the board] together, we'll be meeting to discuss the overall implications this has."
Until yesterday, school officials had said they had seen no sign of an investigation and even questioned whether one existed.
The FBI agents visited Hornsby's office at school system headquarters in Upper Marlboro and an administrative building in Landover that houses the system's technology department, said schools' spokesman John White. White said staff members "cooperated fully" with FBI requests, but he could not specify what kind of materials agents were seeking.
White and Tignor said the school system will not elaborate on the agents' requests until its attorney, who spoke with the agents yesterday, has a chance to brief school board members on the visit. White said the agents had obtained the materials using a search warrant.
Tignor said she will call a closed-door meeting to discuss the visit as soon as several board members return from the annual conference of the National School Boards Association in San Diego, which Hornsby was also attending.
"We'll be meeting. We want to know what was taken; and if this or that was taken, why was it taken; what is the connection" to the investigation, Tignor said.
FBI spokesman Barry Maddox declined to comment on the agents' visit.
The federal investigation was launched last fall after reports in The Sun regarding Hornsby's dealings with several education vendors. The paper reported that Hornsby had overseen the purchase in June of $1 million in early-literacy technology from LeapFrog SchoolHouse, which a few months before had hired his girlfriend, Sienna Owens, as a saleswoman.
Owens said in October that she had nothing to do with the deal and had not benefited from it, and the LeapFrog saleswoman assigned to Maryland, Debora Adam, said she had received the full commission on the sale, estimated at $40,000.
However, in December both saleswomen left the firm after a company inquiry into the commission paid on the Prince George's sale. The company's president, Bob Lally, also left after the internal inquiry.
Hornsby, who assumed the $250,000 job almost two years ago, has maintained that the purchase had nothing to do with Owens and that he was not aware of her benefiting from the deal. He could not be reached for comment last night.
The Sun also reported that Hornsby had gone on a 10-day trip to South Africa in 2003 that was paid for by the education company Plato Learning, which is pursuing a major algebra software deal in the county, which runs the 17th-largest school system in the country.
In addition to the federal investigation, Hornsby's vendor dealings are being scrutinized by the Maryland state prosecutor and by a forensic auditor hired by the school board. Tignor said the auditor's report is expected in a few weeks.
Having FBI agents visiting school system offices has bolstered her determination to make sure nothing is amiss in the school system, she said.
"Certainly, we are always concerned. We have to maintain integrity," she said.