—– By: Ann Costantino —–
The Baltimore Post lost a battle last Tuesday after appealing to Baltimore County Public Schools’ administration, asking for the release of suppressed emails related to the shredding of roughly 2,600 financial disclosure statements last year.
Upholding two attorneys’ rulings that the emails were not public information due to a legal exemption which states they are part of “attorney-client work product” and are, therefore, “privileged” communications, the school board concurred with the previous decisions despite The Baltimore Post’s yearlong attempts to obtain any information specific to the April 27, 2018 and August 1, 2018 shredding of the financial records.
In fact, according to numerous responses to Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) requests and denials from the same law office that destroyed the records, it is as if the shredding of the financial records did not occur at all.
“(The) emails will not be disclosed at this time pursuant to your request,” board attorney, Andrew Nussbaum, said in an email on Monday.
But other than a 56-page destruction log which recorded the dates of the document destruction, the emails are the only known records that relate to the shredding event.
Yet the law office – and now the school board – will not release them.
Additionally, attorneys in the law office have not responded to questions surrounding the timing of the document destruction which coincided with The Baltimore Post’s investigation into several key employees’ financial ties. The destruction of the documents both impaired the investigation and restricted access to public information.
Following the January 2018 indictment of former Superintendent Dallas Dance – from February to August last year – The Baltimore Post requested the financial statements for dozens of employees.
Concurrent to the requests, Dance was convicted on four perjury counts for lying on the same type of documents requested by The Baltimore Post, for years 2012, 2013 and 2015. He spent four months in jail for the criminal misdemeanors, lost his superintendent licenses in Maryland and Virginia, and currently works as an educational consultant in Virginia, his home state.
Throughout a series of requests made by The Baltimore Post for particular financial statements for dozens of employees, some for 2012 and 2013 were simply unavailable, while others were provided.
In response, The Baltimore Post requested a destruction log last August which showed when employees’ financial document had been destroyed. That log revealed that the system’s law office destroyed the documents on two specific dates in 2018. On April 27, nearly 2,400 were shredded, while 200 more were destroyed on August 1.
Unaware that the law office had begun disposing of almost all of documents at the same time, The Baltimore Post made over eight dozen inspection requests over a six month period.
What we don’t know
For nearly a solid year, The Baltimore Post drilled for details related to the unprecedented document destruction of the financial records via numerous MPIA requests. But more recent requests have resulted in a dead end.
- In March, the district’s law office said there was no record of any costs, payments, checks, or system payment records associated with the record purge.
- The law office also said there were no official “shred certificates” for the job. The certificates – which are provided by shredding and recycling vendors for the district – document and timestamp all record destruction.
- In April, the law office said there were no records of any employees, companies, contractors, vendors, or any other persons who may have been hired to destroy the documents.
- There is also no record of any equipment purchased or rented to dispose of the nearly 2,600 records which – at roughly 16-pages each – would amount to about 40,000 pieces of paper destroyed over a two-day period, but almost all of them destroyed on one of the two days.
- And when also asked in April for all emails related to the shredding between the head of the law office, Margaret-Ann Howie, and the school board, Howie denied the request, stating it was attorney-client work product.
- In July, the district’s law office doubled-down, stating there was no record of any costs associated with the destruction of financial records, nor were there records of any outside companies, vendors, contractors, individuals or employees associated with the financial disclosure record shredding.
- And last week, the law office said sign-in sheets — a document the department uses for visitors and vendors that come to the law office — did not exist for January through August 2018, although one was provided to The Baltimore Post via an unrelated MPIA request for March 2019.
Howie, who heads the department where the documents were destroyed, also handles public information requests. The overlap permitted her to deem her own emails related to the document shredding untouchable.
Howie cited a law that says the emails were protected under an exemption of attorney-client work product and, thus, “privileged” information between herself and her client, of which she is an employee, Baltimore County Public Schools.
Last month, that request was denied by school attorneys – again. Board attorney, Andrew Nussbaum, backed up Howie’s previous denials, citing the “attorney-client work privilege” exemption.
But when the district’s new superintendent, Darryl L. Williams, took the helm on July 1, The Baltimore Post asked for a fourth time.
Williams, in turn, asked the school board to decide, but the board’s decision failed to produce the only known documents related to the shredding that seem to exist. All other requests – specific to the destruction of the financial records – do not, according to numerous responses from Howie.
What we do know
For 21 years, according to records provided by the school system, the district has maintained the records. If the information provided to The Baltimore Post last year is accurate, the records were untouched until February of last year, according to earlier information obtained by The Baltimore Post, which stated that the law office began pulling documents for destruction at that time, which was the same month The Baltimore Post began requesting them.
The statements, which are signed under penalty of perjury, are designed to capture potential conflicts of interest and employees’ ties to vendors.
Howie pointed to a 4-year retention schedule – a document that defines types of documents and for how long each type is to be retained and when it can be destroyed – which purportedly allowed the district to discard the documents when the records’ respective retention times expired.
Yet even the school board and board attorney, Andrew Nussbaum, were unaware of the shredding. Maryland State Archives was also not notified of the destruction, a requirement of all boards and Maryland state agencies. Baltimore County Public Schools has since provided several of its document retention and destruction schedules with the agency, which were submitted and approved after the financial document shredding.
As for the timing, Howie said she had run out of room to store the documents in her law office. She also said Baltimore County Public Schools is not subject to state laws that mandate adherence to state archive rules, indicating adherence was optional.
The school system and its school board are a “state unit” and not a “state agency,” Howie said at a December 2018 school board meeting.
But the peculiar timing of the shredding revealed that the district had not chosen to dump the docs until financial disclosure statements had become a topic of discussion, and precisely when The Baltimore Post began requesting them.
The shredding not only followed the indictment of former Superintendent Dance, but also immediately preceded a procurement audit by a firm whose consultant acknowledged in April that some of the documents were indeed sought for the audit, but were unavailable because they had been destroyed.
But why is there no trace of the shredding by companies contracted with the school system?
According to numerous records obtained by The Baltimore Post over the last year, the system is contracted with no fewer than four companies that handle document shredding, destruction and recycling for the entire school district.
- Cintas, for instance, holds a 14-year, $802,666 contract with the school system – spending up to $54,000 for an entire year to destroy school system documents.
- Georgetown Paperstock actually pays the district by providing rebates of up to $90 for every ton it destroys, according to a contract between the school system and the company. Georgetown also has a special department which handles extra sensitive documents, according to records and the company’s website.
- While a contract requested from the school system for Hanna Paper Recycling doesn’t include financial details, it shows the company was commissioned in July 2018, between the two dates Baltimore County schools’ law office destroyed the financial records. But Howie says there are no certificates of record destruction for the shredding of the financial disclosure documents.
- And a certificate of destruction shows a fourth company – Integrated Waste Analysts, Inc. – handles some district shredding, although no information is available for the company on the district’s public facing procurement website. The company destroyed over 6,000 lbs of paper for Baltimore County schools in December 2017, records show, preceding the destruction of the financial forms.
- Using the shredding and recycling companies already contracted with the school system, The Baltimore Post also found that the school system’s Office of Logistics arranged for the destruction of almost twice the amount of school materials and documents in 2018, than they did in 2017, records show.
The law office has never responded to requests for comment on the matter.
The Baltimore Post has requested an opportunity to make an oral argument in front of the school board, appealing the board’s August 6 decision not to release the emails.
Numerous stories related to The Baltimore Post’s yearlong investigation into the document shredding can be viewed here: