—– By: Ann Costantino —–
When Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) inadvertently violated its own ethics policy in 2017, after destroying original 2015 and 2016 financial disclosure statements (FDS) for the Department of Innovative Learning’s Executive Director Ryan Imbriale, an attorney who advises the system’s ethics panel said it was a mistake made by an employee who collects and files the statements.
It was a violation of the system’s 4-year document retention schedule that would be dismissed as a one-time “clerical error” after a confused employee discarded the hard copies from Imbriale’s file which was housed in the system’s Office of Law.
But an official log of destroyed FDS records confirms that Imbriale’s statements were actually destroyed on two separate occasions, November 16 and December 4, 2017. And The Baltimore Post found that numerous employees amended their forms during the same time period – and between the dates Imbriale’s forms were destroyed — without incident, including interim Superintendent Verletta White, whose updates to five years of her financial documents were filed with the law office on the same day Imbriale’s first statement was destroyed on November 16, 2017.
White amended her forms to include a consulting job she had with the Education Research and Development Institute, an adjunct teaching job and unpaid advisory and other roles she had with several organizations. But unlike Imbriale’s statements, all five of White’s original financial records survived the amendment process and were done so per State Ethics Commission (SEC) guidelines.
Michael Lord, SEC executive director, told The Baltimore Post in an earlier interview that amendments to the FDS should not replace originals, but should show up as an addendum, added to the original statements.
But last year, when inspecting Imbriale’s financial records, The Baltimore Post noticed a significant discrepancy between the dates that two statements were due and when they were actually signed.
By themselves, the records had the appearance of original copies.
To make matters worse, The Baltimore Post has found that Imbriale’s “new” 2015 disclosure statement was signed off by an ethics panel employee the day after records show his original was destroyed, which means that his original 2015 document was destroyed before the replacement had been reviewed and accepted by the system’s ethics panel.
Even more concerning, records also show that although his original 2016 disclosure statement was destroyed on December 4, 2017, his replacement statement for that reporting year appears to have been signed off by the ethics panel on January 13, 2018, only after it was updated for a second time, which was over one month after records show the original was discarded.
The Baltimore Post tried for weeks last year to obtain Imbriale’s original records. But when pressed for the forms, an employee that works for law office said they had been destroyed due to an electronic filing system that overrides originals when employees amend their statements.
Along with the paper copies, the software system which was written by BCPS employees, houses the financial disclosure statements. But, as previously reported by The Baltimore Post, the software was designed by BCPS staff to completely replace original digital versions when an employee makes a change, destroying the original legal documents in the process.
As a result, only the latest digital version of an employee’s financial disclosure document is retained in the system, according to a staff member who works in the law office.
Despite the seeming flaw in the electronic filing system, paper copies are to be preserved in physical files. According to the law office’s official FDS destruction log, original copies were physically removed and destroyed only on two occasions while an employee sought to amend his financial records.
According to records obtained by The Baltimore Post, this “clerical error” occurred only twice in the system’s entire recorded history, but only for one employee: Mr. Imbriale. And it occurred outside of district policy which requires the statements be retained for four years.
Mr. Imbriale began amending his previously submitted FDS records shortly after the school system’s vendor relationships were scrutinized by members of the media, and during a time when the system’s former superintendent, Dallas Dance, was being investigated by state prosecutors for allegations related to an inappropriate vendor relationship.
In October and November 2017, The New York Times and Baltimore Sun published stories that raised questions about questionable employee/vendor ties.
The Baltimore Post found that the timing of stories appeared to set off a chain of events, including triggering a flurry of amendments to financial disclosure forms by a number of key BCPS employees, as discovered by The Baltimore Post last year during a six-month investigation into numerous employees’ financial records. Calls for an audit of the system’s procurement practices also intensified.
Beginning the same month the stories broke, several employees filed amendments to include positions, stakes in companies and teaching and consulting jobs they did not previously disclose. The trend would continue throughout 2018.
The Baltimore Post would also later discover that nearly 2,600 financial statements that were older than four years would be purged – which the school system’s law office claims was allowable under school system policy; however, Maryland State Archives (MSA) regulations indicate that the document purge occurred outside of state law which requires state level oversight for the destruction of documents.
The statements would be destroyed for the first time in the system’s recorded 21-year history. The timing of it was questionable and occurred outside of view from the school board and the public.
The school system also could not provide official “shred and destroy” certificates for the purged documents, as reported last week by The Baltimore Post.
As also previously reported, records show that BCPS’s law office has only recently complied with State Archive laws which requires state and local agencies and school boards to obtain approval of its document retention polices and to notify the MSA when they destroy records.
But when the school system destroyed the records, no one was notified, surprising lawmakers and even school board members who were at the time debating the scope of a procurement audit after the Times and Sun stories raised concerns.
The statements, which are designed to capture potential conflicts of the interest, are filed annually by employees with the ability to spend or direct the spending of system funds. The records destroyed in the purge included years 2012 and 2013. The audit’s scope would be decided one month later, to capture procurement decisions made in years 2012-2017.
Calls for an audit intensified further after former Superintendent Dallas Dance was convicted last year for charges stemming from providing misleading information on his 2012, 2013 and 2015 statements. Dance served a four-month jail sentence and was released in August.
The Baltimore Post previously reported that the system’s director of human resources, John Mayo, worked alongside Dance as a consultant for Illinois-based SUPES Academy in 2013, but Mayo did not disclose the position on his 2013 financial statement. But instead of answering The Baltimore Post’s questions about the omission, the school system’s law office destroyed the document when it purged the 2,600 documents last year, records show. The Baltimore Post retained the record.
According to a recent BCPS press release, the first phase of the system’s procurement audit is currently underway and is set to be released in the coming weeks.
Neither the school system, nor Mr. Imbriale, responded to questions or requests for comment.
But last week, while inspecting more financial statements at the system’s law office, a Baltimore Post reporter asked for clarification about a number of issues, including Imbriale’s missing forms and the system’s software used for its electronic filing system. The reporter’s questions were unfortunately cut short by a fire drill.
The alarm ended the reporter’s questioning when she was the only one to vacate the building.