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State probes school trip


The state prosecutor's office is investigating allegations that top Baltimore school system officials tried to tap an equipment account to pay for a recreational fishing trip originally planned as a staff retreat, according to sources close to the investigation.

The office is reviewing school system records as it conducts an investigation of possible fiscal misconduct involving the fishing trip, taken May 19 by about 10 system and city officials.

Last week, the system's chief operating officer, Eric T. Letsinger, was fired as the system conducted its own investigation into the trip and other allegations, including drinking alcohol in a school office.

James I. Cabezas, chief investigator for the Maryland state prosecutor's office, said it is office policy "not to confirm or deny any active investigation." But documents obtained by The Sun show that the office received records from the system on May 26.

The documents show an invoice for $1,665.68 from Smokey Joe's and Tackle Shop in Chesapeake Beach, Calvert County, for an "all inclusive" charter fishing trip May 19 and a check from the school system for that sum. They include an internal record showing the money for the trip would come from a fund for "repairs to equipment."

The allegations of fiscal misconduct stem from questions of whether Letsinger or others intended to use the system's check but abandoned the plan after a former system employee, in a radio appearance on the day of the trip, made the potential transaction public.

Schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland later called for the investigation that led to Letsinger's firing.

Letsinger denies any wrongdoing.

Last night, he provided a receipt to show that another system employee, Alexandra Hughes, paid for the trip with a personal credit card. He said he reimbursed Hughes, who is Copeland's assistant, with his personal check.

Letsinger has said he initially planned to charge the trip to the system because it was supposed to be a team-building retreat for overworked people on his staff. He said he footed the bill himself after it turned into a day to just relax. He said the charter boat company did not require payment until the end of the trip, when Hughes used her credit card because he had forgotten his wallet.

"No public funds were spent on this team-building event, and the documentation has made that crystal clear since day one," he said.

The documents show that a system invoice for the trip was approved by Thomas A. Palardy, the system's director of maintenance and inspections. Palardy is one of several former City Hall staffers hired by Letsinger, a former deputy housing commissioner, to work in the school system. As chief operating officer, Letsinger oversaw more than 1,000 employees in departments including facilities, school police and transportation.

Palardy said he signed the invoice as a matter of routine, and that he was not ordered by Letsinger to do so. "There was nothing to hide, just processing the invoice," he said.

He referred further questions to the system's public information office, which has declined to make public details of the investigation because it is a personnel matter.

The catalyst behind the controversy has been Richard Donald, who was fired last fall from his job as a data analyst for the school system but still has connections within the system giving him information. Donald first made details of the fishing trip public on WOLB-AM radio. This week, he revealed more details on WBAL-AM. Yesterday, he provided The Sun with a copy of documents that the school system sent to the prosecutor's office.

Last night, school board Chairman Brian D. Morris announced the launch of yet another investigation, this one into how the documents - clearly marked "confidential" on a fax cover sheet from the system's legal office to the state prosecutor - were "leaked or stolen."

"We're not going to stand by any illegal communication of legal or personnel matters to the public, and we certainly aren't going to tolerate a campaign designed to undermine the public trust," Morris said. "It does nothing but undermine the progress that actually has happened and the work of the system, which is educating children."

School system spokeswoman Edie House said, "The fax clearly states that the communication is intended only for the personal use of the recipient named. It's evident that it found its way in the possession of other persons."

Donald has accused the school system of a pattern of institutional racism. He said he is one of many black system employees frustrated over the influx of high-level administrators from City Hall - some of whom are white - who lack backgrounds in education.

He said other disgruntled employees are not speaking out for fear of losing their jobs as he did.

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