Hornsby tied to commissions

The Baltimore Sun

GREENBELT -- Andre J. Hornsby occasionally teased his girlfriend about getting a portion of her sales commissions, the woman testified yesterday in the federal corruption trial of the former Prince George's County school superintendent.

"He made jokes about receiving half the money," said Sienna Owens, who worked as a sales representative for an educational materials provider before losing her job three years ago amid the emerging scandal. "He had made comments about, 'Where's my cut?' "

"Oh, come on!" said defense attorney Robert C. Bonsib, who was cross-examining Owens. Flushed and angry, Bonsib sought to determine whether Owens thought Hornsby had been serious when he made the jokes, but he was unable to get a definitive answer from her. She maintained, however, that Hornsby had not specifically demanded a kickback.

Later, when Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart A. Berman brought up the jokes again, Owens said, "The truth comes out in jest," implying that she took Hornsby's remarks to mean he expected a share of her commissions.

"Were serious remarks sometimes cast as jokes?" he asked.

"Yes," Owens replied, over Bonsib's objections. "He would speak in code. He would say something indirectly to imply something."

Owens was living with Hornsby in 2004, when, she said, she gave him a $10,000 kickback from a deal worth almost $1 million for educational materials for the school system.

Prosecutors say that Hornsby, 54, used his position to ensure that Owens' company, LeapFrog SchoolHouse, and another firm were awarded lucrative contracts with the school system in exchange for kickbacks.

A 16-count federal indictment charged Hornsby last year with mail fraud, wire fraud, witness and evidence tampering and obstruction of justice.

Hornsby had been fired as head of the Yonkers, N.Y., school district in 2000 amid questions about his activities. The next year, he met Owens, a Harvard graduate 25 years his junior, at an education conference. Not long afterward, she moved from Boston to Yonkers, where he still lived, "to be close to him," she said.

In 2003, after he was hired by the school board in Prince George's County, she moved into his new townhouse in Mitchellville. Their arrangement was that she paid grocery and utility bills and other "basic household expenses." When they traveled together, she told the jury, she usually picked up the tab for hotels, meals and limousines and expensed them to her employer.

"Dr. Hornsby was primarily a cash person," she said. "I used my debit card."

She had started working at LeapFrog in February 2004. Her salary was $85,000, plus commissions. She did not tell her employers that she was living with Hornsby, but it was clear to her soon after her hiring that the relationship was common knowledge, she said.

Owens called Hornsby a mentor, and said she often sought his advice about her work. He offered her contacts among other superintendents, she testified.

Hornsby initiated the deal with LeapFrog without revealing to the school board that he was living with one of the company's saleswomen, board members said later.

All along, Owens testified yesterday, there was an "implicit understanding" that she would share with him the commission from the Prince George's County deal. "But we never spoke about it," she said, apart from the jokes he had made before the deal came up.

In June 2004, while they were on a business trip in Topeka, Kan., she said, Hornsby told her he had to spend some federal Title 1 funds or he would have to return them to the government. It was then that he suggested buying the LeapFrog products, with Owens as the intermediary, even though Maryland was not her sales territory, she said.

While in the lobby of the Topeka hotel, Owens said, she raised the issue of her commission and asked how she should handle it.

" 'Shhh,' " he responded, according to Owens. " 'Don't talk about that here.' "


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