Baltimore County Public Schools’ law office has provided some clarity into the mystery surrounding the sudden destruction of 2,600 financial disclosure statements last year which occurred while a now-Gunpowder Gazette reporter had been actively requesting the records and while the school system was preparing for a high-profile procurement audit of its spending practices.
In response to the latest round of public record requests asking for payments made to any contracted or temporary employees who played any part in events leading to the destruction of no fewer than 40,000 pages of financial documents, the law office has provided two responses.
The first: “As you have been previously advised in response to your prior requests, the work performed by my staff was performed as part of the work of the office. Therefore, there are no payment records or itemized expense records that exists.”
The email was sent by Margaret-Ann Howie, Baltimore County Public Schools’ chief legal counsel, the system’s public record officer who is also the attorney who oversaw the destruction of financial records.
However, records received as part of the response the same day, which included two documents previously provided by Howie in response to an April Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request, were not made clear until Wednesday. The records were originally sent in response to requests for payment details surrounding all temporary employees hired by the law office for any purpose in 2018.
On Wednesday, those payment records were again sent, but this time in response to a specific request, asking for any contracted temporary employees who were hired for any purpose, but who also “sorted” the financial disclosure statements prior to their disposal last year.
Those documents show that at least one unnamed temporary employee, funded through an appropriation for “Policy and Legal Matters,” was paid $15,195.52 in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.
This, in response to an Oct. 11 Maryland Public Information Act request which sought payment records for any contractors, vendors or temporary employees hired by the law office for any purpose, but who also took part in any activity that ultimately led to the destruction of the financial records. Roughly two dozen other MPIA requests have been unable to tease out that specific detail relative to the destruction of the financial disclosure documents.
What was not made clear until Wednesday was whether the temporary employee – hired by the law office – played any part in the destruction of documents since only more recent requests for records narrowed in on any contractors hired to “sort,” and not actually physically “destroy” the records.
All requests for all payment details for those who were “associated” with the destruction of financial disclosure records have failed to produce any documents – since March.
But what is still not clear is why more detailed records concerning the temporary employee’s work – which included going through the documents before their ultimate disposal – are unavailable. It is also not clear why a temporary employee would have been commissioned to handle the financial records during that time, and in the first place.
In an unrelated MPIA response concerning payment records of another temporary employee hired to assist an executive director in the system’s Department of Business Services, a detailed log concerning all work for which the contracted worker was compensated and reimbursed was provided. The list included specific work performed, down to mileage and other travel-related reimbursements.
As reported in October, an unrelated second record shredding occurred in November and December 2018, during the same high-profile procurement audit.
An executive director for the school system moved into a windowless file room which once housed the system’s accounting documents, after it was converted into a new office across from the employee’s existing office, according to an employee who spoke with The Gunpowder Gazette under the condition of anonymity. The file room had to be cleared in order to make space for the new office.
Although the district said the records were scanned first, before being destroyed, the event took place after the school board instituted a moratorium on all record destruction during the active audit of procurement practices. The directive to cease further record destruction followed reports in August 2018 that the financial disclosure statements had been destroyed preceding and during the audit. (Only records over four-years-old had been destroyed, which was allowable under the district’s policy, but some of the eliminated documents included records needed for the audit.)
But when destruction and inventory logs were requested for documents housed in the former accounting file room, detailing what items were destroyed and which, if any, were preserved, the system responded with certificates showing that 53,000 lbs of records had been destroyed.
Other records provided by the school district showed that 21 boxes from the system’s 3rd floor Fiscal File Room were among the destroyed records, while 16 boxes had been archived.
The anonymous employee told The Gunpowder Gazette that the file room – which was once full of wall-to-wall and center-aisles of file cabinets – included documents relating to employees’ reimbursements, travel expenses and other records needed to ensure Baltimore County schools’ budget targets were being met.
However, similar records responsive to numerous public record requests, asking how and when the financial disclosure documents were physically destroyed, are simply unavailable.
Responses to those requests have provided no insight into the actual destruction process that led to the disposal of roughly 2,600 financial disclosure statements – required forms which are used to capture all additional income and are designed to thwart potential conflicts of interest between employees and school system vendors.
Typically, the school system pays shredding companies that are specifically tasked with certifiably destroying large quantities of documents. In the case of the financial disclosure statements, no such records exist.
Documents called “Certificates of Destruction” are provided by those shredding companies and would certify the dates of actual record disposal.
But the law office maintains that the roughly 40,000 pages of financial disclosure records were destroyed in-house over two days: on April 27 and August 1, 2018.