- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Prince George's County, Md., school board members charged alcohol, personal trips, golf tournaments, gifts and even refrigerator magnets to the school system, a draft of an expense audit shows.
The draft, obtained by The Washington Times, shows that most current and former board members overspent their $9,800 expense accounts over the past four years. Auditors also questioned particular expenditures by board members:
n District 3 board member Doyle Niemann charged the school system for a $15 parking ticket in 1997.
n Former District 4 board member Carolyn Mills-Matthews charged an airline ticket for her spouse to an out-of-state conference in 1998.
n District 4 board member Cathy Smith charged $4,040 in custom furniture for her home office.
n District 9 board member Marilynn Bland charged a personal trip south in 1998 and 2,500 personalized magnets to her board account last November.
Board Chairman James Henderson said the board was following standard procedure during audits by waiting for the completed audit before commenting.
One board member called the audit necessary, but regretted its cost.
"It needed to be done," said the board member, who asked not to be named. "But it could cost the county its board. We oversee a $1 billion budget, and this audit makes us look irresponsible with finances."
Mrs. Smith, Mr. Niemann and board member Angie Como, District 1, declined comment.
Mrs. Bland; Mrs. Mills-Matthews; Robert Callahan, District 5; Ken Johnson, District 6; and Bernard Phifer, District 8, were unavailable for comment.
Under pressure from state officials, the nine-member county school board in June hired an independent auditing firm to examine the expense accounts of board members, schools Superintendent Iris T. Metts and her staff over the past four years.
The audit, which will include board comment when it is officially released next week, reports that faulty accounting created difficulties for board members to know account balances. It calls for stricter policies and questions expenses for gifts, donations to schools, office furniture and recreational activities.
Auditors also asked the board to create a list of prohibited campaign activities. The audit recommends prior authorization for travel and overtime for board secretaries.
Auditors noted that procurement procedures for equipment weren't followed and that the system's inventory was not regularly updated.
The audit also details the amount of account overruns, including some that topped $4,500. Mrs. Smith overspent her account by $5,492 in her first year. Auditors credited that mostly to the purchase of furniture.
Auditors noted that board members had different allotments to their accounts. Mrs. Bland had close to $20,000 for fiscal year 2000 that mistakenly included an extra portion that a board chair receives, plus an emergency transfer.
Auditors also asked for reimbursement for board charges for alcohol, personal use of the school system credit card, computer software and parking fines.
State and county officials expressed outrage at the audit's preliminary results.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., one of two Prince George's legislators who called for the audit, said the report makes "obvious … the need for better oversight" and "removal of the credit cards" that enable school board members to charge expenses directly to the school system.
"They're an accident ready to happen," said Mr. Miller, a Democrat.
Mr. Miller said he hopes the school board will recognize the need to get rid of members' charge accounts themselves.
Others threatened state action.
"If they don't burn their credit cards themselves, we will deal with this issue at the state level," said state Delegate James Hubbard, Prince George's Democrat. "It is so easy to charge things when it isn't your own money."
He called for board members who "didn't use common sense" and spent money "questionably" to rethink running for re-election.
"We shouldn't have to go to the public to stay within the letter and intent of the law," said state Sen. Paul Pinsky, Prince George's Democrat. "There should have been guidelines. If not, they should have followed common sense."
State officials are planning hearings on the results of the audit, which is almost two months late.
Mr. Hubbard, chairman of the delegation's subcommittee on education, said he plans to hold a hearing on the audit and other issues before next month. State Delegate Howard "Pete" Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, already has scheduled an Oct. 3 hearing.
The impetus for the audit began in March, after Mrs. Bland charged the school district $6,000 in catering for an all-day community forum that overran her account. After the board voted to transfer an additional $7,000 to Mrs. Bland's account, she charged $7,800 for a newsletter for residents of her district sent out three days before March's primary election, in which Mrs. Bland was a candidate.
The board also voted this spring to have Mrs. Bland reimburse the school system for the newsletter. She hasn't yet, according to auditors.
This summer, she reimbursed a portion of a trip to a conference at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., that included a side trip to Mississippi, auditors wrote.
After the issue arose, the board this spring created a new policy that requires receipts for expenditures, limits members to within a spending guideline and bars expenses for alcohol and activities that could be construed as campaigning including a 45-day limit before elections for newsletter distribution.
But auditors noted that board members and school officials have not followed the new policy: "To test compliance [with the new policy], we examined a sample of credit-card statements paid during the months of May, June and July 2000," the auditors wrote. "Again, we found very few receipts attached to the payment vouchers indicating noncompliance even with the amended [policy]."
Margie Hyslop contributed to this report.

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