Op-Ed: Baltimore County schools’ record purge more significant than public realizes
Posted by David Plymyer on 4th September 2018
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—– By: David Plymyer —–

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / The Baltimore Post

By: David A. Plymyer

I am not easily shocked by events that take place in Baltimore County.  My jaw did drop ever so slightly, however, when I read in the Baltimore Post on August 10th that all financial disclosure statements filed by officials of the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) for the years 1997 through 2013 were destroyed. [Baltimore County Schools’ Ethics Department purges nearly 2,400 financial disclosure docs, days after former Superintendent Dance sentenced to jail.]

Although school policy requires the statements to be retained for only four years, there apparently had been no prior purge of the statements for the 21 years prior to initiation of the purge on April 27, 2018.  Moreover, the policy does not preclude retention of the statements for longer than four years if there is a reason to do so – which there certainly was in April because of the pendency of the procurement audit to be done in the wake of the Dallas Dance scandal.

After she learned about the purge from the Post story, Baltimore County Board of Education (BOE) member Ann Miller moved that the BOE order a halt to any further destruction of financial disclosure statements.  Her motion was passed and on August 24th an email was sent to all employees by Interim Superintendent Verletta White directing that destruction be stopped until further notice.

Why did the BCPS decide to do a massive purge in April?  There are two possible explanations.  One is bad, the other is worse.  And I am not taking the word of BOE Chairman Edward Gilliss that there was “no nefarious purpose” for the destruction, as reported by the Baltimore Sun.

If the purge proved anything, it proved that BCPS should never have been left in charge of auditing its own operations in the aftermath of the Dallas Dance scandal.  And, depending on how the purge came about, it could prove to be the end of the aspirations of Verletta White to become the permanent Superintendent of Schools.

Timing of the purge.

The purge was initiated one week after former Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance was sentenced to six months in prison for falsifying financial disclosure statements submitted to the school system.  Dance failed to report outside income including money he began receiving in 2012 from SUPES Academy, a company that helped school districts train administrators.  That same year Dance pushed through a contract between SUPES and the Baltimore County school system.

The purge started one month after the Sun reported that Robert Barrett, who was an executive officer in community and government relations for the school system official, had pleaded guilty to a felony charge after accepting bribes in 2013 from FBI undercover agents who posed as out-of-state businessmen looking for Barrett’s help in securing business with the school system.  Court documents disclosed that the FBI began its investigation after it became aware of allegations that Barrett received a combined $22,500 in checks from two separate local businessmen in 2011 and 2012 for the same purpose.

Most importantly, the purge began while the BCPS was negotiating a $413,000 contract with an accounting firm to audit the procurement practices of the school system from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2017.  The audit was intended to address concerns that there were more contracts that Dance and school officials may have steered to educational technology and other companies with which they had outside business interests.  The contract was approved by the BOE on May 22, 2018.

Who ordered the purge?

There is an important nuance having to do with school governance that was not addressed in news reports of the purge.  Financial disclosure statements are administered by and filed with the Ethics Review Panel.  The Ethics Review Panel is an instrumentality of the BOE itself and is not part of the BCPS hierarchy supervised by Interim Superintendent Verletta White.

The Ethics Review Panel has its own attorney for purposes of maintaining its independence from the school officials subject to its regulation. That attorney currently is Andrew Nussbaum of Nusbaum Law, LLC in Columbia.

According to the Sun, the financial disclosure statements were destroyed by the school system’s Office of Law, headed by BCPS General Counsel Margaret-Ann F. Howie.  It was Howie who sent a letter to the BOE two weeks ago explaining the purge of the records.  The Office of Law falls under the supervision of Interim Superintendent White. According to the organizational charts of the Ethics Review Panel and the Office of Law, the two entities share an administrative assistant, Kristin Crafton.

One of the many questions yet to be answered is why Howie rather than Nussbaum defended the purge.  And why was the Office of Law even involved in the decision to destroy financial disclosure statements filed by BCPS officials? Did Nussbaum and the Ethics Review Panel approve the destruction of the financial disclosure forms?

And what about Interim Superintendent White?  What did she know about the destruction and when did she know it?  If she knew about the destruction and failed to stop it, then I would suggest to the BOE that it not waste its time resubmitting her name to the State Superintendent of Schools for approval as permanent Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools.   

A simple mistake in judgment, or something else?

The importance of a financial disclosure statement lies in identifying potential conflicts of interests between a school official’s duties with the school system and his or her outside business interests.  It is self-evident that, if the audit raises questions on why certain procurement decisions were made, it would be useful to know if the school system officials involved in the decisions had conflicts of interest based on outside employment with the companies to whom contracts were awarded.  The best source of that information now is gone for the years prior to 2014.

Although the biggest loss was the destruction of financial disclosure statements from 2012 and 2013, years within the period covered by the audit, the loss of statements from several years prior to that is also problematic.  You cannot assume for purposes of an audit or investigation that all financial disclosure statements are filled out accurately.

For example, if I am suspicious about a contract awarded in a particular year, I want to know about any outside employment of an official responsible for selecting the contractor in the years immediately preceding or following the award because of the possibility that there may have been an omission (deliberate or inadvertent) on his or her financial disclosure statement for the year in which the contract was awarded.  The situation with the financial disclosure statements of Ryan Imbriale, described below, is a case in point.

In my opinion, common sense dictates that any scheduled or unscheduled purge of the financial disclosure statements should have been postponed until after completion of the procurement audit.  Was the purge nothing more than a stupid mistake? Or did someone decide that dealing with the backlash from the purge was preferable to the consequences of having the information on the statements available to the auditors, the media, and the public?

In her letter to the board, BCBS general counsel Howie stated that her office began getting rid of documents because it was running out of space to house them all.  She further explained that “the removal of these forms was accomplished within the bounds of the law and without any aim to shield any information from review.”  The destruction of documents may have been within the bounds of the law, but it clearly was the wrong thing to do under the circumstances.

A history of problems with the accuracy of financial disclosure statements.

The accuracy of financial disclosure statements has been problematic for the school system. The problem was not limited to the statements submitted by Dance.

  • Verletta White is the Interim Superintendent of Schools. She was cited by the Ethics Review Panel in January 2018 for failing to report the income that she received from the Educational and Research Institute (ERDI) over a four-year period beginning in 2013.

ERDI advises educational technology (“ed-tech”) vendors on doing business with school systems.  White was the school system’s Chief Academic Officer at the time.  The Ethics Review Panel determined that ERDI itself did not do business with the school system, and White was not prosecuted criminally for the violations.

  • Ryan Imbriale is the Executive Director of Innovative Learning for the school system and was a central figure in implementing Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT). STAT was Dance’s signature program for providing laptop computers to all students at a cost that reached approximately $147.7 million by July 31, 2018.

In 2014, the school system contracted with the Center for Research and Reform in Education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education to do a five-year study of STAT.  By December 2017 Hopkins had earned $711,330 under the contract, according to the Baltimore Sun.

An article on Imbriale in the Dundalk Patch posted on October 4, 2012 described the former Patapsco High School principal as an adjunct instructor at Johns Hopkins University.  On his current LinkedIn page Imbriale describes himself as a member of the adjunct faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

The Baltimore Post reported that Imbriale listed his employment with Johns Hopkins on his financial disclosure statement for 2013 (obtained by the Post before it was destroyed) but did not list it for 2014.  On November 14, 2018, after the Sun reported that Dance was under investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor, Imbriale filed an amended statement for 2015.  On December 4, 2018, he filed an amended statement for 2016.  Both amended statements listed his employment with Johns Hopkins.

According to the Post, Imbriale did not file an amended statement for 2014.  Did Imbriale take a hiatus from teaching at Johns Hopkins in 2014, the year that the school system awarded a major contract to a unit of the School of Education, and then resume teaching the following year?  At least according to the Post’s review of his financial disclosure statements as amended, that would appear to be the case.

The Post was unable to obtain copies of Imbriale’s original statements for 2015 and 2016 to see if he listed his employment with Johns Hopkins on the original statements or if he didn’t report it until he filed the amended statements. The school system explained that the software it used deleted the original statements when an amended statement was filed.  According to the Post, Imbriale did not respond to its attempts to get copies of the original statements from him.

There must be an investigation to determine if Imbriale earned income as member of the adjunct faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in 2014 and, if so, why he allegedly failed to report it on his 2014 financial disclosure form.  The investigation must include a determination, if possible, whether he reported his income from Johns Hopkins University on the initial financial disclosure statements that he filed for 2015 and 2016.   

It was a serious error by BCPS officials to delete original statements just because amended statements were filed later, a point that Ethics Review Panel attorney Nussbaum clearly recognized in a statement to the Post.  I will explain:

A financial disclosure statement is submitted under oath, and it is a violation of BCPS ethics rules to make a material misrepresentation on the statement.  If prosecutors determine that a misrepresentation was done deliberately with the intent to hide an outside source of income (and therefore hide a potential conflict of interest), the official submitting the statement also may be prosecuted for the crime of perjury.

An amended statement filed years after submission of the original statement does not necessarily “fix” a violation caused by a misrepresentation on the original statement. Each situation must be evaluated according to its circumstances.  Consequently, the action by the school system in discarding an original statement on the basis that an amended statement was filed was tantamount to destroying evidence of a possible ethics violation or even a crime.

And of course, there are even more questions.  The Post was informed that, prior to 2016, financial disclosure statements were submitted on paper.  How did a paper statement filed by Imbriale for 2015 get “deleted” by the software?

  • John Mayo is the Chief Human Resources Officer for the school system and was formerly an assistant superintendent hired by Dance. In June of this year, the Post reported that it had learned from the Chicago-based reporter who investigated SUPES Academy that Mayo performed work for SUPES as a “master teacher” in 2013.  As you recall, Dance went to jail in part because of his undisclosed relationship with SUPES.

According to the Post, Mayo did not list his employment with SUPES on his 2013 financial disclosure statement (also obtained before it was destroyed) or on subsequent statements.  The allegation that Mayo earned income from employment with SUPES not reported on his financial disclosure statement also requires an investigation. 

The audit.

In the aftermath of the story by the Baltimore Sun in September 2017 that Dance was under investigation by the State Prosecutor for his undisclosed relationship with SUPES, pressure began to build for an audit to make sure that procurement activities by the school system had not been compromised.  White initially proposed an audit covering only 2016, the year before she became interim superintendent.

State legislators and a minority of the BOE called for an audit covering a longer period done under the supervision of the state rather than the school system.  In a move that I believe was extraordinary ill-advised, the BOE majority pushed back, insisting that the school system control the audit.  Former Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz supported the BOE majority, and the move to have an audit done by the state failed.  The BOE ultimately agreed that the audit done by the accounting firm that it hired would cover the period from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2017.

The resistance by the BOE to a fully independent audit raised suspicions that the BOE, or at least certain school officials, had something to hide.  The purge of financial disclosure statements initiated in April of this year only heightens those suspicions.

The damage done.

The stewardship of the taxpayer’s money by the Baltimore County Board of Education and the employees of the Baltimore County Public Schools is a matter of extraordinary importance.  There are many of us in the County trying to persuade the notoriously tax-adverse citizens of Baltimore County that they must be willing to pay more in taxes to maintain the quality of public schools in the county. Our job just got a lot harder.

Parents and taxpayers want assurance that all decisions made by school officials are done in the best interests of the students, and not influenced by the personal interests of educators and administrators.  That certainly applies to the procurement of goods and services by the school system, especially as it affects the massive investment that the school system has made in educational technology since 2012, an investment that remains controversial.

The information that has trickled out of the BCPS over the past several years has stoked legitimate fears that school officials had their heads turned by honoraria, consulting fees, trips, lavish entertainment, and resume-padding honors and awards bestowed on them by vendors of goods and services and ed-tech trade organizations.  The purge of the financial disclosure statements did nothing to allay those fears.

– David A. Plymyer

David A. Plymyer retired as the County Attorney for Anne Arundel County in 2014. He also served five years as an Assistant State’s Attorney for Anne Arundel County. He now writes on matters of law and local government from his home in Catonsville, Maryland. His email address is dplymyer@comcast.net, and his website is at https://davidplymyer.com/.