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Hornsby's girlfriend split commission

THE BALTIMORE SUN

UPPER MARLBORO - The live-in girlfriend of the former Prince George's County schools chief, Andre J. Hornsby, received half of the commission on the school system's $1 million purchase of education software, according to an audit that raised other serious questions about Hornsby's activities.

The audit released yesterday also found that, without the school board's permission, Hornsby was working as a consultant while holding the $250,000 county job, something he had previously denied.

And it found that the school system had circumvented its own bidding rules in awarding a contract to a former colleague of Hornsby's who appeared to have been helping Hornsby run his own consulting business after the contract was awarded.

School board members commissioned the investigative audit from a private consultant after articles in The Sun raised questions about Hornsby's dealings with LeapFrog SchoolHouse, the company that employed his girlfriend and sold the software to the county.

Ten days ago, as the audit neared completion, Hornsby resigned - taking with him a $125,000 severance payment.

Board members who gave Hornsby the benefit of the doubt for months said in a news conference yesterday that the audit showed Hornsby had repeatedly deceived them.

"We feel we have been misled," said board chairwoman Beatrice Tignor, who had been one of Hornsby's staunchest defenders.

But the audit revealed on its last page that the board's own attorney had been informed by LeapFrog in December that Hornsby's girlfriend had received payment after the $1 million sale. Board members did not address yesterday why they didn't take action against Hornsby at that point.

Board members said despite the audit's revelations, they still believed that agreeing to a $125,000 severance payment was the right thing to do because it spared the county from the likelihood of a lengthy court battle with Hornsby.

Hornsby responded to the audit report in an 18-page rebuttal submitted by his lawyers, by far his most detailed public statement to date on the allegations. In it, he questioned the audit's validity and maintained that every action he had taken in his two-year tenure had been for the benefit of the school system.

"It is clear ... that no fair minded person can reasonably dispute that Dr. Hornsby sought to do what he thought was right and best for the students of the Prince George's County Public Schools," the statement concluded.

Hornsby's dealings with education vendors remain under investigation by the state prosecutor and the FBI, which seized boxes of materials from school system offices two months ago.

But the 36-page audit by Huron Consulting - which relied on hundreds of e-mails obtained by Huron as well as interviews with Hornsby and other system staff members - confirmed many of the allegations of possible ethical misconduct that were first reported in The Sun last fall and winter.

The audit found that Hornsby's girlfriend, Sienna Owens, benefited from and was very much involved in the county's dealings with LeapFrog SchoolHouse and that Hornsby was a prime instigator of the county's June 2004 purchase of early-literacy technology from the company. That material cost just under $1 million in federal funds.

This finding was directly contrary to claims by Hornsby, 51, and Owens, 26, in response to the newspaper's initial October reports on the LeapFrog sale. They said that the sale was handled by a different LeapFrog saleswoman and that the decision to make the purchase was handled by Hornsby's staff.

Both Owens, who received a major promotion after the sale, and the saleswoman assigned to the deal, Debora Adam, said last fall that Adam had received the full commission on the deal, which those familiar with the deal have estimated at $40,000.

But both saleswomen left LeapFrog in December after it carried out its own inquiry into what happened with the commission. That inquiry also forced the resignation of LeapFrog SchoolHouse's president, Bob Lally, and prompted the school board to order the $100,000 Huron audit.

The auditors reported that, contrary to what both saleswomen had said, LeapFrog had told the school board's attorney in December that Adam and Owens did in fact split the commission, the size of which the audit did not confirm. The company told the attorney that the commission split was against company rules.

Although Adam was acting as the public face on the $1 million deal, auditors were able to recover partial records of 18 e-mails between Owens and Hornsby from 2004 that contained references to LeapFrog business. (Hornsby had erased the hundreds of e-mails between him and Owens, the audit states, but Huron was able to recover at least the subject lines from e-mails sent after June 2004.)

One e-mail from Owens, sent the same month as the purchase, instructed Hornsby to "call Bill," a reference to a regional sales director for LeapFrog who was involved in the deal.

Hornsby and his top administrators said in the past that the LeapFrog purchase was made after a careful evaluation by his school system staff.

But the audit reported that other, lower-level staff members said in interviews that the system gave close consideration to only a very limited purchase from LeapFrog, and that the decision to make a much bigger buy of nearly $1 million had been clearly driven by Hornsby and had been made without the usual evaluations of the products.

In his rebuttal yesterday, Hornsby said the purchase had been rushed only because there was a deadline to spend the money. He confirmed he was living with Owens at the time of the sale, saying: "There's been times where Ms. Owens has spent a tremendous amount of time with me, but has maintained other residences. ..." But Hornsby said the deal was not influenced by the relationship.

"While Dr. Hornsby's relationship with Ms. Owens was clearly an appropriate area of inquiry for Huron, there simply is no evidence to conclude that there was any adverse impact on Prince George's County Schools that resulted from that relationship," his lawyers stated.

The audit also undermined Hornsby's claims about a consulting company he created to help school districts obtain funding from the federal E-rate program, which helps poor schools pay for Internet wiring.

When The Sun reported in December that Hornsby was still soliciting business for the company, QSCi, on a recently updated company Web site, Hornsby said through a spokesman that he founded the company before coming to Prince George's in 2003 but that it had since been dormant.

Tignor, the board chairwoman, said at the time that Hornsby would need board permission to do outside work.

The audit found that Hornsby was still doing outside work while he was running the 136,000-student school system, one of the 20 largest in the country. Hornsby had been paid about $19,000 in late 2003 and 2004 for consulting work by one district outside Houston and had discussed proposals from four other Texas districts that would pay him between $1,875 and $11,500 each. The audit could not determine whether he was paid for those jobs.

Hornsby told auditors that he had mentioned to the Prince George's board at the time of his hiring that he still had one consulting job to wrap up in Texas, but board members told the auditors this was not the case.

Hornsby also told auditors that much of the work for his company was being handled by his niece, who had just graduated from high school.

Asked yesterday by reporters whether they felt Hornsby had lied to them about his outside work and other matters, several board members answered "yes" in unison.

The audit also called into question Hornsby's dealings with a Texas technology firm hired by Prince George's to help it obtain E-rate funding. The audit found that, in the months after Hornsby arrived in Prince George's in 2003, the county obtained bids from five other firms to do the E-rate work.

As system staff were reviewing the five bids in November 2003, Hornsby intervened and let it be known he wasn't satisfied with the bids, according to the audit. Shortly afterward, the county received a sixth bid, from a Texas consulting firm, E-Rate Managers, that had been created that same month by Cynthia Joffrion, who worked for Hornsby in Texas and Yonkers, N.Y.

Within days, E-Rate Managers had been granted the contract. The scores that staff had given each bid were revised to reflect that E-Rate Managers had the best bid, the auditors found.

Hornsby said in his written response yesterday that Joffrion's firm was selected only because she was the most capable of bringing in E-rate money, and that she had succeeded in tripling the county's E-Rate funding. He stated that he "received no personal benefit" from the county's dealings with Joffrion.

The audit found other dealings between Hornsby and Joffrion as well. Based on e-mails and computer records, the auditors found that many of the e-mails being sent to school districts under Hornsby's name regarding his QSCi work had in fact originated with Joffrion's computers in Texas.

Among the 98 e-mails that auditors found on Hornsby's school office computer that referred to QSCi were several that made it appear as if Joffrion was referring school districts that needed help getting E-rate funding to Hornsby's company.

Reached in Texas last night, Joffrion referred questions to her lawyer, who could not be reached.

At the board news conference yesterday, board member Robert Duncan predicted that the FBI might be able to find out more about Hornsby's dealings, given that it has the power to obtain bank records, which Huron did not. But he said the board had learned all it needed to in order to prevent similar transgressions in the future:

"There's undeniable proof that we need to tighten up ... our procedures. There were breakdowns in interior controls."

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