- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2000

Prince George's (Md.) school board member Marilynn Bland used school property for election campaigning, and investigators wonder if she violated campaign finance disclosure rules, according to records obtained by The Washington Times.

Mrs. Bland, whose questionable use of a district credit card trips to Florida and Mississippi had sparked a $206,000 audit of board members' expense accounts, is running for her second term in November against the recently dissolved County PTA's president Minerva Sanders and two write-in candidates.

The county school system paid $1,800 for large signs used to advertise Mrs. Bland's November 1999 community forum, according to school system invoices.

Those same signs then were repainted and used in her March 3 primary campaign, where she was a candidate for District 9, according to witnesses and school records.

At the same time, Mrs. Bland filed an affidavit in February with the Prince George's County Board of Elections declaring that her re-election campaign will not receive or spend more than $1,000. She did not declare the value of the recycled signs in her affidavit.

Prosecutors say privately it is difficult to determine their worth, but that state election laws mandate that all cash contributions or donated materials that exceed $1,000 be declared.

"Even if the signs' depreciated value is low, that expenditure combined with other campaign expenses may put her on the edge of that limit," said one county investigator who declined to be named. "It is certainly something for someone to look into."

The amount at issue may be small, but it is one more example of school officials' flagrant disregard for the rules and the spirit of the law, said state officials.

"This is a clear violation of election law and a misuse of Board of Education property," said Maryland Senate President Thomas "Mike" Miller, Prince George's Democrat. "In fact, every one of her signs violate the law by not having authority lines."

Authority lines are the small type at the bottom of an ad, billboard or sign that states who paid for the campaign plug.

Other state officials just shook their heads and bemoaned the effect of improper action by board members on future funding from the state.

"Oh my, it's just one more incident," said Sen. Leo Green, Prince George's Democrat. "These are going to end up creating hooks and ladders for the funding."

Some officials familiar with election law called such conduct ridiculous.

"That is outrageous conduct," said an attorney familiar with election law who declined to be named. "It sounds to me like she misappropriated funds. Someone needs to catch this one."

Others cautioned that the matter still remains in a gray area of the law.

"The safer course would have been [for her] to determine some value for the signs and pay that," said Kenneth Gross, an attorney and former head of enforcement for the Federal Election Commission. "She probably regarded the signs as useless or abandoned with no value left. At best, it's an error in judgment. At worst, it's theft. I don't know if you could establish a case."

But despite outrage on the part of officialdom and in spite of ample evidence rule-breaking, it is not clear who should, can or will hold school board members accountable for violations: the state legislature, the state prosecutor, the county's state's attorney's office, various tiers of ethics panels or voters.

So far, besides threats from state legislators to impeach or restructure the board, little action has been taken.

Mrs. Bland declined to answer calls seeking comment for this story.

According to Mrs. Bland's school board expense records, she spent $10,000 for a December Academic Forum for her constituents at Crossland High School. That amount included almost $1,819 for red-and-white 4-by-8-foot signs advertising the forum including Mrs. Bland's name and schools superintendent Iris T. Metts in large letters.

Those signs remained standing for weeks after the forum.

"People in the community were questioning that," said Donna Beck, an education activist who lives in District 9. "We thought the signs remained up far longer than they needed to."

Soon after the forum, witnesses said, signs disappeared, reappearing in January in the same locations repainted yellow with red and black lettering: "Marilynn Bland for School Board." The signs also had her campaign slogan: "Tomorrow's schools today." The red printing on the old signs was not completely covered.

"You could see Dr. Metts' name shining through the thin yellow paint," said Mrs. Beck. "They were obviously hand-painted over the old signs and they were on the same piece of wood. I was incredulous that she had used the forum signs for her primary."

Other county residents such as Zalee Harris said she even saw the repainted signs in neighboring District 8, the district of Mrs. Bland's employer and former divorce attorney, County Councilman Isaac Gourdine.

"We were making jokes about it, that they didn't paint the signs over very well," said Mrs. Harris. "It was obvious what she had done."

After the March primary, those signs were removed. A few have reappeared along with new white campaign signs, homemade, on flimsier board, with most lacking an authority line, required by law in Maryland. A few included a small red sticker crediting the signs to Mrs. Bland's former treasurer, former colleague and brother, Carl Dewayne Gordon, who resigned in early October, according to election office records. Mr. Gordon has been a part-time administrative aide in Mr. Gourdine's office since June 1997. He remains on the county payroll while on leave for university.

It is not clear where the forum signs are these days, but they are not housed in the school system's warehouse or board office, according to school board officials.

This isn't the first time Mrs. Bland has come under fire for blurring the line between school and election business.

School, county and state officials are still concerned about a $7,800 newsletter Mrs. Bland sent to all registered District 9 voters the Friday before the March 3 primary.

The newsletter, which used board of election address labels, didn't mention her candidacy in the primary three days later but included her campaign slogan.

In the end, the school board refused to pay for the newsletter, but Mrs. Bland has yet to reimburse the school board, according to District 5 school board member Robert Callahan, who said he intends to push the issue Thursday.

It was that newsletter combined with the $10,000 forum that exceeded her $9,800 expense account, and became the impetus for the expense audit. The audit, released last month, noted that Mrs. Bland exceeded her account by $5,000. It also chastised Mrs. Bland for spending $770 on buttons in 1998 and $920 on magnets in 1999 with her name on them. Auditors said those purchases could be construed as campaign-related material. The audit didn't mention the signs.

In September, Mrs. Bland sent out another newsletter, this time making by three days the 45-day-before-election deadline imposed by the board in April. School system records show the $8,000 newsletter was partly outsourced to make the deadline.

Mrs. Bland defended the forum and newsletter at a June school board meeting as "promoting parental involvement" and called the timing coincidental. Some District 9 residents responded that there were no Bland newsletters in 1997, one in 1998, none in 1999 and now two in an election year.

Regardless, Mrs. Bland, school records show, isn't a novice to community forums and sign purchases. In 1998, the school system paid $800 for 11 signs announcing a November 1998 "Full Disclosure Meeting Hosted by Marilynn Bland."

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