Prince George's County school board members defended yesterday their decision not to take action against the county's superintendent when they learned in December that his girlfriend had received part of the commission on a $1 million software purchase he approved.
An audit released Monday detailed improprieties in dealings between education vendors and county schools chief Andre J. Hornsby, who resigned with a $125,000 severance payment late last month as the audit was being completed. Among the most notable disclosures was that Hornsby's live-in girlfriend, Sienna Owens, was involved in the county's June 2004 purchase of early-literacy technology from her employer, LeapFrog SchoolHouse, and benefited financially from it, something both she and Hornsby had denied.
The audit also revealed that school board members, who for months have said they needed more information about what happened before taking action, have known about Owens' payment from the deal for more than five months.
The audit reported that a LeapFrog executive had told the board's attorney in December that Owens received part of the commission, which those familiar with the deal have estimated at $40,000 and which was supposed to have gone to another saleswoman. The company had stated publicly at the time only that the two women had left the company after an internal inquiry into the sale.
Yesterday, board members said in interviews that they decided not to take action against Hornsby after learning about the commission split because they needed to know more about what had occurred. That is why they launched the $100,000 outside audit that was completed this week, they said.
"We didn't think we had enough information. There was a mention that [Owens] got money, but there were no specifics about whether she did in fact receive money or how much she received," said board member Dean Sirjue. "You needed more details. You can't act on a generality without getting specifics."
Board member Abby Crowley went further, saying she was not in favor of taking action in December because she wasn't sure whether Owens' receiving payment from the sale necessarily implicated Hornsby. Crowley said that even now, after reading the audit, she doesn't see conclusive proof that Hornsby knew his live-in girlfriend was receiving a cut of the commission on the sale he oversaw.
"We didn't then or have now any evidence that he knew about the commission-sharing agreement," she said. "The fact that he was living with her and that there'd been [commission-] sharing raised questions in our mind. ... But it's still not clear to me that there was wrongdoing on Mr. Hornsby's part with regard to that."
In an 18-page rebuttal to the audit report, Hornsby defended the LeapFrog deal, saying it was driven only by academic considerations. In the past, he has said he had no knowledge of Owens' benefiting from the deal.
Critics of the school board, an appointed body which is scheduled to be replaced by an elected board next year, said yesterday that the revelation of the board's knowledge about the commission split was further proof of its failure to hold Hornsby accountable. The LeapFrog deal, first reported by The Sun in fall, remains under investigation by the FBI.
"I've said all along they had their heads in the sand, but now we know they withheld the truth from the general public after being asked directly if they knew anything" about the commission, said Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat. "They spent $100,000 [for the audit] after they already knew he'd lied to them" about the sale.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, another Prince George's Democrat, questioned the notion that Hornsby may not have known about Owens' commission split.
"If your spouse or girlfriend gains $20,000 overnight, I can't help but believe you have a celebratory dinner or plan a trip or someone says, 'Let me pay the mortgage this month,'" Pinsky said. "My feeling all along has been if [Hornsby's] significant other received benefit from a contract he signed off on, that raised serious ethical issues."
Board critics also questioned the board's decision to give Hornsby a $125,000 severance payment despite knowing about the commission split. Board members said yesterday they still thought the payment was the right thing to do because, without it, Hornsby might have sued the system for firing him two years into his four-year, $250,000-per-year contract.