- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

Maryland officials Thursday demanded an investigation into allegations that Prince George's County school board members used district credit cards to purchase trips, furniture and alcohol.

"It's outrageous," said state Sen. Paul Pinsky, Prince George's County Democrat.

"Some of the spending clearly goes against the intent of the accounts. And if it becomes clear that there has been fraudulent expenses, we need to get the State's Attorney's Office involved."

State officials demanded explanations for the lack of oversight on individual expense accounts and questioned the appropriateness of board members getting school district credit cards. Prince George's school board members are the only ones in the state with credit cards for expenses.

"A couple of things shouldn't have happened," said Delegate James Hubbard, Prince George's Democrat, and the legislature's liaison to the school system.

"No credit cards should be issued to any elected board members. Can you imagine if members of the legislature had them? That would be an accounting nightmare. If it is worthwhile expending for, then they should be willing to put the money upfront and get reimbursed."

Mr. Hubbard said the issue will be looked at more closely by the state, along with the need for a change in the way "we get our board."

The Washington Times reported Thursday that school board members had charged alcohol, custom furniture and a trip to Disney World, among other items, to their school credit cards over the past two years.

Expense-account records show several board members exceeded their $9,800 annual limit and charged excessive dining and travel costs and office-supply purchases to the cards. None of the spending was questioned.

Board members themselves described the expense policies and oversight as "haphazard."

School officials scrambled Thursday to contain the controversy. After an internal school board conference call with Superintendent Iris T. Metts, board members agreed not to question other members' expense accounts. School officials said the district has corrected several concerns raised in the article in The Times.

A long-delayed audit of the district, ordered by state officials, is progressing, and a new ethics panel has been installed, according to a statement issued by the district.

"The board was already taking corrective measures to ensure accountability prior to the call for an audit," James Henderson, District 2 and chairman of the school board, said in a written statement. "In fact, the board has adopted a new stricter policy with more stringent accountability measures. We are committed to complying with the demand for accountability and fiduciary care of public dollars."

State education officials and legislators began calling for an audit in March, after District 9 board member Marilyn Bland was accused of sending the district a $6,000 catering bill for an all-day forum for parents in her district.

Afterwards, Mrs. Bland submitted the expenses to the board's general account, instead of to her personal expense account, which the board had voted to deny.

Despite that, the board voted to transfer an additional $7,000 to her account just as she was charging the school system $7,800 for a newsletter for district parents. The newsletter was sent to parents three days before March's primary election, in which Mrs. Bland was a candidate.

Of all the board members, Mrs. Bland has come under the closest scrutiny after overspending her account by more than $4,000 for this year. Her expenses from the 1998-99 school year are also being audited, particularly for a trip she took in August 1998 to Disney World with her family, county officials said.

After an examination of Mrs. Bland's expense report, which included no receipts or monthly expense forms, The Times learned that Mrs. Bland rented a car from the Alamo rental-car company for $819 and drove to Buena Vista, Fla., where she stayed in a hotel, billing another $829. Afterwards, she drove to Mississippi and back through the Southeast to Prince George's County.

The credit card statements did not reflect a registration fee for a conference. Sources close to the school board administration said Thursday that they were unable to locate a receipt for a registration fee or evidence of a reimbursement if Mrs. Bland had paid by check.

Mrs. Bland was unavailable for comment.

Other board members are being scrutinized for purchases such as $3,360 for custom-fitted furniture for a home office, $61 for beer and wine from a liquor store for a board Christmas party and office supplies from the upscale store, Franklin Covey.

Board members also took a number of trips for conferences, including three to Ocean City in six months last year. Other conference expenses included trips to San Francisco, New Orleans, Denver and cities in Tennessee and Florida, with charges of thousands of dollars.

Board members charged for meals, averaging $25 to $50 per person, often at expensive restaurants such as Jerry's Seafood or Phillips' Flagship in the District. Restaurant expenses during conferences sometimes topped $100.

Board members insist that the conferences were worthwhile. "It's part of being a school board member," said Catherine Smith on Wednesday. "I learn how to be a better board member. I don't feel that it is a luxury."

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