This story originally published in The Baltimore Post on August 29, 2019. Written by Ann Costantino.
Details surrounding the destruction of thousands of financial disclosure statements at Baltimore County Public Schools’ Office of Law last year may be sparse, but the timeline of events leading up to the mass shredding may have just become a bit clearer.
According to metadata discovered by The Baltimore Post of electronic files provided by the school system’s law office last year, it appears that a system employee created a document to log the future destruction of the financial records on the same day – and less than one hour after – The Baltimore Post began requesting the documents on February 14, 2018, a full two months prior to the attested date of actual destruction which purportedly occurred on April 27, and again later on August 1, 2018.
What initially began last year as a query into various employees’ ties to vendors, quickly transformed into an investigation involving the nature of the sudden destruction of the very documents requested during a six-month Baltimore Post investigation.
But any attempts to obtain information specifically surrounding the purge of nearly 2,600 financial disclosure records, has left The Baltimore Post with more questions than answers since the office that destroyed the documents says there are no records of any costs, employees, contractors, individuals, equipment, certificates, sign-in logs or even shredding companies involved in the destruction of roughly 40,000 pages containing financial information for hundreds of employees.
But last month, the metadata brought some clarity.
Immediately preceding an unrelated February 14, 2018 record inspection appointment at Baltimore County Schools’ headquarters, a reporter hand-delivered several signed request forms, requesting documents for numerous employees.
The move followed the indictment of former Superintendent Dallas Dance who was later convicted on four perjury counts for providing misleading information on the same type of forms.
Over the six-month period, some records requested by The Baltimore Post were unavailable since the law office said they had been destroyed in accordance with school policy, while other statements remained available for a time, but later destroyed.
At the time, the reporter was unaware that the law office was busy actively destroying nearly 2,600 records, which an attorney in the office later said was done to make room for 300 incoming statements last year. The statements, which are signed under penalty of perjury, are roughly 16 pages each and ask employees for details about side work and payments made to them by outside companies and organizations.
While the records were in fact destroyed in accordance with school policy – which requires that the financial records need only be maintained for four years from the date they are signed – records show that state law supersedes school policy, potentially making the document purge unlawful. This point has yet to be clarified by school system and state representatives.
Baltimore County schools’ law office had not made use of its policy for at least 21 years of maintaining the records.
The documents were also destroyed without the knowledge of Maryland State Archives which requires that the agency seek approval of all document disposal schedules and to notify the agency when documents have been destroyed. The school system did neither.
Maryland’s open record act statute states that even if an agency is not required to keep a document that – if requested – it should be provided to the requester.
Instead, the law office made the decision to destroy the documents without the knowledge of even the school board, concurrent to an active request for them by a reporter, and immediately preceding a procurement audit of the school system which involved some of the very records destroyed. Calls for a comprehensive audit followed a pair of fall 2017 New York Times and Baltimore Sun articles that questioned ties between employees and education technology vendors.
Despite numerous requests for information surrounding the destruction of thousands of documents which could produce an actual timeline detailing precisely when each document was disposed, Baltimore County schools’ law office – the location where the records had been housed and destroyed – says it simply has no records or documentation of exactly how the massive document purge took place, even though it occurred under its watch and direction.
For over one year, The Baltimore Post has pressed for details, but has come up empty-handed except for a string of emails suppressed by Baltimore County schools’ law office between its director and general counsel, Margaret-Ann Howie, and the school board on the topic of the financial record destruction.
In an appeal to school administration earlier this month, the school board voted to uphold the law office’s refusal to release the emails that involve the same law office and Howie, who oversaw the destruction, citing “attorney/client work privilege.”
Want to learn about the backstory to this story? See: Gunpowder Gazette Insider: The Story Behind the Story on Baltimore County Public Schools’ Financial Document Destruction