—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones may have just joined a building cast of characters recently zinged in Maryland for failing to disclose business connections when signing legal forms designed to capture conflicts of interest.
Joining former Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance and Baltimore City Mayor Catherine Pugh, the District Four Councilman revealed his wife’s connection as vice president of a moving company, Walters Relocation Services, but failed to mention agreements with Baltimore County government in his financial statements, which includes at least two master agreements and contracts, some which have been in place since at least 2012.
On all four years of his financial disclosure statements, Jones made clear that his spouse, Sabrina Jones, worked as a principal for the company. Missing, however, was information stating that Baltimore County government contracted with the company for moving and relocation services, and not the Board of Elections as he indicated on the forms, which is a distinct and separate entity.
Even two fellow councilmen were unaware of the connection to the county vendor.
Clearly disclosed on Jones’ financial records, however, was that the moving company had been doing business with Baltimore County Public Schools – for years – and had earned over $610,000 from the school system, during former Superintendent Dallas Dance’s entire tenure, records show.
Jones has been a vocal supporter of school system leadership for years.
Walters and Baltimore County Schools
While Jones disclosed on his statements that the moving company provided services for the school system, it’s unclear if the school board was aware of the connection to the councilman when board members voted on at least three contracts since 2012.
Chairwoman Kathleen Causey did not respond to repeated attempts to obtain clarification about the vendor and the board’s knowledge – if any – of a connection to Jones.
Causey served on the previous board that voted on a $2 million contract in June 2017 that included Walters Relocation Services, along with five other vendors used as the school system’s on-call moving and relocation companies. The companies are able to bid on individual jobs under the contract terms.
The Baltimore Post found that the school system paid $610,258.43 to the company between 2012 and 2017 for a variety of services including “school improvement,” “warehousing and distribution,” and “maintenance of plant,” detailed payment records obtained by the Baltimore Post show.
The records also showed that the first of at least 60 of those payments began in early October 2012, three months after former Superintendent Dallas Dance took the helm on July 1, 2012 to lead the school system.
Dance was hired by Baltimore County schools in April and began work as a consultant in May of that year. The contract was approved on May 8, 2012 for four vendors with an approved spending authority of $500,000. But the contracted spending authority almost maxed out in the first three years alone, with Walters Relocation getting nearly 90% of the allowed spending – $444,649.43 – by October 29, 2015, records show.
On May 24, 2016, the spending authority increased by $700,000, for a new 5-year contract. By August 2017, Walters earned roughly $165,000 during the first year of the new contracted spending authority, payment records show.
Walters Relocation Services and Baltimore County Board of Elections
Jones stated on his disclosure statements that Walters Relocation had done business with Baltimore County’s Board of Elections for at least the last four years. But according to a spokesperson at the elections office, Walters is contracted with Baltimore County government and not the elections board.
The elections board spokesperson told The Baltimore Post that Walters “moved our office from Catonsville to Hunt Valley. The County chose them, not this office.”
The details of the moving company’s access to the Baltimore County election system and equipment is also not known. Neither is the appropriateness of an elected official having such ties.
Walters Relocation Services and Baltimore County Government
A quick Google search revealed that the county has master contracts with the vendor, one that extends to 2022, but the exact value of the contracts and master agreements is still being gathered by the county attorney, per The Baltimore Post’s request.
But according to an online newsletter written by Councilman Kach in 2017, a Walters Relocation’s contract that was under county council consideration at the time was for “labor, vehicles, related equipment and materials required to move both commercial and residential items on an as-needed basis for the county.”
Kach’s newsletter also noted that, on February 6, 2012, the Council approved a 5-year contract for similar services with Walters, which was not to exceed $111,498.
Kach told The Baltimore Post that he had no idea that Jones’ wife worked for the company. Jones’ first term on the county council began in 2014.
Jones as Community Organizer
Jones most recently came under fire for what some county residents considered meddling in Baltimore County Public Schools’ superintendent search process, which Jones called a “battle.”
In a YouTube video appeal to his supporters, Jones said, “The battle for superintendent of Baltimore County Public schools continues. Continue to fight hard to make Verletta White the permanent superintendent for Baltimore County Public Schools.”
Jones, a staunch supporter of White, asked his constituents to show up in droves last week at various input meetings put on by national search firm, Ray & Associates.
Jones also asked county residents to write White’s name in the comment box on an anonymous survey designed by the search firm to capture the community’s preferences for qualities desired in the next superintendent.
At the end of his video, Jones said, “It is very imperative, very important, that we as a community stand up. We cannot allow these other forces to try to be in charge of educating our children that we know mean us no good.”
Criticism of Jones’ statement ensued. And both Democrats and Republicans, alike, asked Jones to get out of school business and to stay in his lane.
“With all due respect, the public elected our school board members to select our superintendent. The public did not elect our council members to select our next superintendent. Please allow the school board, elected by the public in a free, fair, and NON-PARTISAN election, to do its job,” said one advocate.
“Who are the ‘other forces’ that you speak of that ‘mean us no good’? As an elected public official, using your seat to influence your constituents seems wrong to me,” said another.
In each case, Jones responded respectfully, but dozens of community members asked the councilman to refrain from using his political office as a platform to campaign for the county’s next permanent school superintendent.
Communities in Baltimore County have been split on their support for the county’s interim superintendent after revelations that she, too, failed at full disclosure on her 2013 to 2017 financial disclosure statements.
But White is highly qualified for the job – both meeting and exceeding all of the criteria for the position. She is known as a homegrown talent, having attended and taught at Baltimore County schools. She also has over 25 years of experience in education and leads with a calm, yet firm, demeanor.
Councilman Jones is not alone in his support for White, who is seen as the ideal candidate by those who recognize she knows Baltimore County schools from the inside-out.
White was approved last year by the former school board for the permanent position, but was shot down twice by State Superintendent Karen Salmon who did not approve her for the position due to an ethical violation connected to failing to disclose a consulting job, as well as failing to begin a widely anticipated procurement audit that had not yet begun at the time Salmon chose to decline White for the position.
White is eligible to apply for the permanent position again, along with other applicants who respond to the system’s opening. She has served as interim since 2017, after former Superintendent Dallas Dance resigned amid a criminal investigation that led to perjury charges.
But some parents and stakeholders want a choice, a fresh start, and distance from the Dance administration under which White worked when she also worked as a consultant for a company whose clients have contracts with the school system.
In the fall of 2017, The New York Times was first to reveal that both former Superintendent Dance and White worked as consultants for the Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI) which pays superintendents and other education leaders up to $2,000 per conference to meet with ERDI’s clients who, in turn, pay the for-profit company thousands of dollars in membership fees for access to the education leaders.
Two months after the revelations, Dance was indicted for lying on his disclosure statements. He spent four months in jail last year after he admitted to concealing roughly $147,000 in income he earned consulting for ERDI, two school system vendors and various organizations and school districts.
But while White also failed to disclose working for ERDI on four of her forms, she has not been accused of any crime.
Weeks after the New York Times and Baltimore Sun articles were published, focusing on excessive tech travel and vendor relationships, White and other district employees updated their statements to include speaking events, teaching jobs and various positions on advisory boards.
Baltimore County’s Recent Financial Disclosure Woes
As with White, Jones was also a strong supporter of Dance during Dance’s five-year tenure, having rallied for similar support from his constituents when Dance’s contract was up for renewal in early 2016.
But Dance left the school system less than one year into that contract amid the criminal investigation that led to his perjury charges for providing misleading information on his financial documents.
Dance was convicted of perjury because prosecutors indicted him while his statements were inaccurate. But lawmakers and other government employees seem to bypass any such penalty by immediately amending their forms when their omissions are brought to light.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, for example, amended her financial statements earlier this month after The Baltimore Sun exposed that she did not fully disclose a $500,000 business relationship she had with the University of Maryland Medical System.
Last year, The Baltimore Post discovered a flurry of financial disclosure amendments made after the New York Times and Baltimore Sun stories, which questioned inappropriate employee/vendor ties at the school system. The amendments continued, leading into Dance’s conviction and sentencing. One employee completely shut down his limited liability company the week before Dance was sentenced.
The Baltimore Post also reported extensively, starting last summer, that the system’s law office destroyed nearly 2,400 financial disclose statements – using a four-year document retention policy – between the time of Dance’s January 2018 indictment and the day before he began a four-month jail sentence on April 27, records provided by the system’s law office show.
The law office destroyed 200 more statements on August 1, according to the records.
It was the first financial disclose purge of its kind, in the system’s 21-year recorded history. But the attorney who called for the documents to be destroyed said she had run out of room to house the documents in the system’s law office.
By their nature, financial disclosure statements are specifically designed to capture conflicts of interest such as employees or lawmakers benefiting financially from the organizations and agencies they serve. They are signed under penalty of perjury, but can be amended at any time.
Councilman Jones did not respond to requests for an interview. An assistant for County Council Chairman Tom Quirk said the chairman was unavailable due to being tied up in meetings all day Tuesday. District Five Councilman David Marks said that he had no knowledge of the vendor and contract and their connections to Jones. “I was not aware of it,” Marks said.
T.J. Smith, County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s press secretary, said that he had “no comment to add.”
Correction: 3/27/19 @ 10:50am – An earlier version of this story stated that former Baltimore County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance concealed $147.00 in income from his financial disclosure statements. The amount is actually $147,000. We regret the error and have updated the story.