In the midst of a high profile and widely anticipated procurement audit last year, employees from Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) had over 53,000 lbs. of accounting documents from its fiscal services file room destroyed, a windowless storage-room-turned-office in its Business Administration building.
This, according to information provided by BCPS in response to a direct request, specifically seeking a log detailing which records had been removed from the room, purportedly first scanned and then destroyed.
Last fall, the school board directed then-interim Superintendent Verletta White to direct all staff to cease the destruction of all documents after roughly 2,600 financial disclosure statements were found to have been destroyed months earlier, which included some records needed for the procurement audit.
Two floors above the meeting room, where school board members convene for bimonthly public meetings in Building E of BCPS’ Greenwood campus headquarters, the file room was emptied to make room for a new office. Certificates from a shredding company show that the records were destroyed in November and December 2018, a few months before an April 2019 report was delivered to the school board, at the conclusion of what was supposed to be a comprehensive procurement audit which looked into the system’s procurement practices for years 2012 through 2017.
While BCPS provided a list on Friday, detailing what was archived and sent to an offsite storage facility, what was purportedly “electronically scanned” – and then destroyed – is not so clear. And the scant information provided by the school system does not include what a system employee told The Gunpowder Gazette was also in the file room for fiscal services.
According to that employee, who spoke with The Gunpowder Gazette under the condition of anonymity due to fears of retribution, the sudden and unplanned clearing of the file room – which included “wall-to-wall” and “a center isle” full of file cabinets – included employees’ reimbursement documents as well as travel, mileage and conference expenses which were a topic at the center of controversy for the district after the New York Times and Baltimore Sun published reports which questioned travel and vendor-employee relationships.
So far, the school district acknowledges that the destroyed files were from the Department of Fiscal Services, stating that boxes identified for destruction included vendor invoice documents from its accounts payable department.
Two orders to destroy the records were signed off by the “office head” of the Office of Accounting. Other records were sent to a storage facility. But, not included in a description of the transferred documents, were reimbursement and travel records the employee claims had been there.
The Gunpowder Gazette has requested precise details from Baltimore County schools on exactly what was destroyed since a vague initial response from the school system is disputed by the anonymous employee with familiarity with the file room which was turned into an office for a senior executive director.
Knowledge of this second shredding arose in the middle of a yearlong and continued fight for records concerning the first known shredding – coined by some as ‘Shredgate” or “Purgegate” – that occurred months before, in which roughly 2,600 financial disclosure statements were suddenly purged in the middle of a reporter’s request for financial disclosure records, which immediately preceded the procurement audit.
Financial disclosure statements ask employees to declare all work performed outside of the school system, including any done for school vendors.
The forms are signed under penalty of perjury and the failure by employees to disclose information on them can lead to prison sentences which is what occurred in the case of former superintendent of Baltimore County schools, Dallas Dance, last year.
In late 2017, after The New York Times and Baltimore Sun published stories which questioned vendor and employee relationships, widespread calls for an audit ensued. In early 2018, after Dance was indicted for perjury for failing to disclose $147,000 in income on his financial disclosure forms, pressure mounted.
Within weeks, 2,600 financial forms would be destroyed. At roughly 16 pages each, 40,000 pages for years 1997 to 2013 were simply eliminated and included two years’ worth of records – 2012 to 2013 – that were later needed for the procurement audit.
While the discarded financial disclosure records were destroyed in accordance with school policy – which states that anything over four-years-old can be destroyed – it was the first time in the 21 years the records had been maintained by the system that school staff made use of the policy and decided to purge the records.
For over one year, a now-Gunpowder Gazette reporter has tried in vain to obtain any details about the massive document destruction. The shredding was discovered after several anomalous responses to the records led to the discovery that they had been destroyed during the precise time she had been requesting them.
To date, an attorney for the school system’s law office that oversaw the destruction of documents says there are “no responsive records” available surrounding any part of the disappearance of the financial records.
For months, the office has maintained that there simply are no records of any expenses, employees, contractors or shredding companies which may have been involved in the selection or destruction of roughly 40,000 pages of financial disclosure statements.
But shred certificates – sans a detailed log of the destroyed contents – exist for the records destroyed in the system’s Fiscal Services file room last November and December, which occurred months after the financial disclosure statements vanished without a trace.
Shredgate # 2?:
On Friday, two responses – obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request – show the school system not only destroyed the records after a directive by board members specifically prohibited it, but the records officer also misinterpreted a reporter’s request in which The Gunpowder Gazette specifically requested a log detailing precisely what had been destroyed, in addition to what may have been archived or stored elsewhere.
Instead, a list of some of the documents that had been archived was provided, including banking reports that were moved for storage to an offsite facility. But requests for details on what had been scanned and subsequently destroyed, only produced responsive documents called “Transfer Requisitions,” and “Certificates of Records Destruction,” provided by a shredding company which stated that 53,000 lbs of of the records were destroyed. Additionally, a short description in the response attempted to describe some of what was discarded.
According to a single sentence in the response from the system’s law office, “boxes identified for destruction included vendor invoice documents from Accounts Payable that were scanned and retained electronically.”
Yet no such detail was provided on what had been purportedly scanned and destroyed or retained, elsewhere.
Baltimore County Schools did not respond to requests for clarification or comment. But communications specialist, Brandon Oland, sent a message after the publishing of this story, stating, “Nothing to add, other than I hope you have a good evening.”
The school system also failed to address the decision to scan and destroy the accounting documents in the midst of a procurement audit and after a directive by school board members specifically asked for all document destruction to immediately cease.
In question is who exactly oversees the documents since the directive to cease purging any records was modified, a month after the directive was implemented, to apply to executive directors and above.
Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who led the system at the time of the purges, stepped down in June and was hired as a consultant for the system after current Superintendent Darryl Williams took over on July 1 of this year.
Timeline of events leading to shredding and procurement audit:
Feb 14, 2018: Reporter made first of six requests to review Financial Disclosure Statements (FDS)
Feb 14, 2018: BCPS’ Office of Law created Excel spreadsheet to log the future destruction of the FDS (the same day that the reporter made the first round of FDS examination requests). Destruction, according to BCPS, occurred on April 27, 2018 and Aug 1, 2018.
May 22, 2018: BCPS school board hired UHY to conduct procurement audit, chooses years 2012 to 2017 for scope.
Aug 9, 2018: Reporter discovered, after six rounds of requests for FDS, that roughly 2,600 had been destroyed
August 21, 2018: School Board directs superintendent to direct school staff to cease all further document destruction due to active audit.
September 2018: The directive to freeze all record destruction in BCPS modified to include only executive directors and above.
November 12, 2018: Seven boxes of material from “Fiscal Services File Room” destroyed. Seven boxes archived. Signed off by “Office Head” from Office of Accounting. But shred certificate states: 26,715 lbs of materials destroyed.
December 7, 2018: Fifteen boxes of documents containing materials from “Fiscal Services File Room” destroyed. Nine boxes archived. Signed off by “Office Head” from Office of Accounting. But shred certificate states: 26,365 lbs of materials destroyed.
April 9, 2019: UHY provided audit report to Baltimore County Board of Education, produced under its consulting services arm, UHY Advisors.
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