A former high-ranking Baltimore County school system employee was sentenced Tuesday to nine consecutive weekends in jail for accepting nearly $60,000 in payments from real estate developers and undercover FBI agents, conduct the judge called "blatantly corrupt."
Robert James Barrett, 67, pleaded guilty last year to a federal charge of filing a false tax return. The longtime Baltimore County schools and government employee had not disclosed the payments he received between 2011 and 2013.
Barrett is the second high-level school employee to be sentenced this year. Former county school superintendent Dallas Dance served four months in jail for his conviction in March on four counts of perjury. Dance failed to report $147,000 in income from part-time consulting work, part of it from a business that had gotten a contract with the school system while Dance was superintendent.
“There’s a history of this kind of thing in Baltimore County,” U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett said Tuesday.
He said Barrett's conviction on a single tax charge belied the gravity of his actions.
“Somebody in Baltimore County knows full well that you don't take checks from someone doing business with Baltimore County,” the judge said. “That doesn't pass the smell test.”
Bennett also sentenced Barrett to one year of probation and 300 hours of community service. He ordered Barrett to pay $16,660 in back taxes and a $22,000 fine. Barrett must report to the Howard County Detention Center by 6 p.m. Oct. 19. His weekends in jail will continue through mid-December. He will be released on Sunday evenings.
Barrett served as director of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks between 2003 and 2010. He then worked as the executive officer for community outreach and government relations for Baltimore County schools.
Barrett spoke briefly before his sentencing in federal court in Baltimore.
“I'd like to say how truly sorry I am for this poor lack of judgment,” he said. “I made decisions that went against all that I cherish and live my life for, such as honesty and integrity and doing the right thing. ... I apologize to the courts, the government, my wife, my family, my friends for letting them all down.”
With his plea agreement, Barrett admitted to receiving $37,500 from real estate developers between 2011 and 2013. He also admitted to accepting $22,000 from undercover FBI agents in 2013. He wrote bogus recommendations on school district letterhead praising the agents — who were posing as out-of-town businessmen — for fake work they did with the school district.
He also flew to Arizona and gave a presentation to investors on behalf of the undercover agents, falsely saying he had worked with them on a housing project.
His attorney, Robert Bonsib, told the judge his client's conduct showed poor judgment but didn't rise to corruption because Barrett did not have authority to hand out county contracts. Rather than “bribes,” Bonsib called the payments “loans.”
"This is a man who has dedicated and devoted his life to serving people," Bonsib said. "For about a year and a half, he went off the rails.”
The judge noted Barrett had "overwhelming debts" and a negative net worth of $408,000.
Barrett pleaded guilty in September 2017, but federal authorities did not alert the school system to the plea. About five months later, in March, Barrett retired after giving several weeks notice, according to Mychael Dickerson, the school system’s chief of staff. At the time Dickerson said school leaders were unaware of his felony conviction.
Barrett frequently attended meetings of the Baltimore County Council and of the county’s state lawmakers in Annapolis. He also was a member of the staff of the school system’s foundation.
A school system spokesman, Brandon Oland, said Barrett “had no decision-making authority with the school system contracts or purchasing.”
“Former employee Robert Barrett’s guilty plea and verdict are based on his personal actions,” Oland said.
County school board president Edward Gilliss also said Barrett had no authority to influence contracts.
Barrett’s sentence of nine weekends in jail went beyond a recommendation by federal prosecutors. They had asked for house arrest; Bonsib had asked for probation. Afterward, Bonsib called the sentence "very fair."
“To say that he has suffered public humiliation because of his own wrongdoing is an understatement,” Bonsib said.
Barrett became the latest public official that Bennett has sentenced to jail. In July, the judge sentenced former state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks to 3½ years in federal prison for corruption charges.
Oaks pleaded guilty to fraud charges and admitted to taking $15,300 from an FBI informant posing as an out-of-town developer. During Oaks’ sentencing, Bennett read a list of Maryland politicians convicted of corruption. On Tuesday, he spoke of ensuring Barrett’s punishment falls in line with the others.
Barrett had served in the Maryland Air National Guard before his career in public service. Bennett said the criminal case casts a shadow over an exemplary life.
"I wish you well," the judge said. "You made a mistake. You messed up. You move on."
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.