An informal behind-the-scenes look at the backstory on how a reporter navigated a dizzying maze of obstacles to uncover Baltimore County Public Schools’ destruction of records amid a procurement audit.
As with any reporter’s story, there is a story behind a story. In the case of a 14-month investigation into Baltimore County Public Schools’ record destruction that occurred following the indictment and conviction of the system’s former leader – and immediately preceding and concurrent to a high profile audit of the school system’s procurement practices – there certainly is a story.
And that story is found within my roughly 40 requests for public records related to the destruction of the system’s records, over half of which have resulted in no documentation provided by the school system because, well, the records simply do not exist.
For months, I have attempted to gain clarity on details surrounding the destruction of 2,600 financial disclosure records. If you’ve been following this story, you’ve heard it all before.
No employees, no contractors, no companies, no vendors, no costs, no expenses, no invoices, no payment records, no checks, no law office sign-in sheets, no transport, no shred certificates – seemingly no evidence and nothing at all – and no one responsible for the sudden purge of tens-of-thousands of pages of financial statements that purportedly were destroyed over two separate days in the system’s small law office last year.
The “word-gymnastics” I’ve undergone in an attempt to ferret out any details have been exhaustive. And my attempts to just put this story in its final resting place, futile.
Then, last week, we find that across the parking lot from the law office, in the system’s Business Administration Building, boxes of records from the system’s accounting file room were purportedly relocated or scanned first, and then destroyed, and just a few months after the financial disclosure statements disappeared.
This also happened after a prohibition – triggered by the first known shredding – mandated that all record destruction stop in light of an audit of the district’s procurement practices which was underway at the time. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that 1) an updated mandate only applied to executive directors above; and 2) does purportedly scanning first and then destroying still constitute destroying?
So, what’s the story behind the story?
For starters, it’s been like walking through a maze where what they say about hindsight, couldn’t be truer.
Within three weeks of the former superintendent’s indictment (you can read about what happened with Dallas Dance here), I submitted my first of six packets of requests to review the same records for numerous school employees.
Since travel and promotion of the district’s controversial half-a-billion-dollar STAT (for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow) laptop program – once hailed as a national model for schools’ transitions to digital learning – had raised eyebrows for the New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Baltimore Post, the Towson Flyer – and now the Wall Street Journal – and in light of Dance’s missteps, his penchant for paid side-consulting work and excessive travel with companions from within the school system, the natural next step for me was to check those records out, too.
Frankly, I was surprised that no one else had thought to do it.
For years, the STAT program was the topic of heated debate. What’s more was the untold taxpayer dollars that went to funding numerous trips – sometimes at posh resorts – for employees who peddled the program to other school districts and organizations.
So, while requests for particular financial statements do not imply guilt of anyone by virtue of my having requested their records, the fact is, the records are there for that reason: to be open to the public for review and to discourage conflicts of interest.
But what I did not know at the time – and do know now – was that the log created to document the future destruction of financial disclosure forms was created on same day I asked for the first round of records: February 14, 2018.
I also did not know at the time that 2,600 – some 40,000 pages of records – were in the midst of being destroyed as I was actively submitting requests to view some of the records over the six-month period.
Nor did I know that accounting records would soon be relocated, purportedly scanned and subsequently destroyed.
And I certainly did not know that when I requested “all Document Destruction Logs created by and managed by BCPS’ Central Office departments,” that the responsive document would be reduced to an arbitrary time frame – September 2017 to August 2018 – thus eliminating other departments which would have logged destruction before and after this period of time.
The problem? I have been traveling through a maze with a compass that displayed only one direction.
Requests for financial disclosure statements.
The first thing to know about the process for requesting the financial forms from Baltimore County Public Schools is that it is a pain in the neck. Due to the school district’s inability to accept a certain amount of email attachments (or zip files) in correspondence, the fastest way I could request the records would be to do so in person.
Walking into the law office, the smell of which always reminded me of my great uncle’s basement, was always an awkward experience. First, I was never permitted to go past the lobby after first buzzing in – not even to the reception desk. I was always stopped short from entering hallways or anything past the wooden benches, right inside the front door.
Secondly, after submitting requests, although the records are (were) housed in that very law office, I would have to come back days, weeks – one time over a month – later to actually obtain the records I sought. But when those finally became available, I was watched like a hawk as I looked through the public records in a conference room, with someone taking notes as I took notes, seemingly interested in each page that was interesting to me.
Over a six month period – from February to August 2018 – I filled out nearly 200 pages individually, just so I could inspect the financial disclosure statements and take copies with me — for which I paid nearly $600 to the law office in exchange. Individual filing years, for each employee, must be requested on its own request form. On top of that, individual forms for every single record has to be signed and dated upon receipt.
By the time I began requesting the financial records, not one – but two – Baltimore County Public Schools’ employees had been indicted for crimes unrelated to each other.
There was former Superintendent Dallas Dance, of course, and then Robert Barrett – a former community liaison for the system – who had used Baltimore County schools’ letterhead for some shady development dealings. He was later convicted for tax crimes after accepting cash bribes that he did not report on his tax forms.
Throughout my requests for the financial records, I can only characterize staff behavior, and my experience with those with whom I had to interact as I requested the records, as stoic and cold. And as the months went on, and I requested more and more records, I found myself with more questions than answers.
For example, there seemed to be a great deal of amendments made by employees to several years of their financial disclosure forms, which are designed to capture additional income and potential conflicts of interest.
In one case, after I had requested an employee’s record, he updated it a second time. I was even told one day by a law office staff member that they had never seen so many employees amend so many forms in the district’s history.
But when I asked questions about anomalies and things that just did not seem to make sense to me, it was like a game of “hot and cold.” If asked the right question, I might get a direct answer. But if I were warm or cold, I’d get an answer that led me to ask warmer questions. But the one thing I just could not seem to figure out is why some records for some employees were available, but those for others (for the same years) were not. The answer, as I would later find out, was because they had been destroyed around the time I had requested them.
That became clear on August 9, 2018, when I received the destruction log I had requested when my curiosity could take no more.
The log showed that 21-years’ worth of the records had been destroyed during the time I had been requesting statements. The records destroyed were older than four years old, permitted by a school policy that allowed for the destruction of records. But, as I’ve stated over a dozen times before, the district had never made use of the policy until they were approaching a high profile procurement audit and while I happened to be requesting the records.
My interest, at that point, shifted from an investigation of individuals’ financial forms to what happened to the documents, themselves.
But my futile efforts to obtain those answers – and even to get the school system to raise an eyebrow – were almost immediately thwarted by a Baltimore Sun editorial in which the writers asserted with authority – and without so much as looking into the matter – that the decision made by system employees to destroy the records when they did, was a “colossal lack of common sense” – and not much more.
The omniscient response from the state’s main printed news source was, at best, unhelpful. But mostly neutralized the importance of the discovery, deeming it all much ado about nothing.
But, while The Sun effectively sucked the oxygen out of a living and breathing and pretty alarming event, its reporters did take the opportunity to first claim the document shredding story as their own discovery, one-and-a-half months after I reported on it. The Sun later owned up to the oversight, updated their story, and printed my letter as an acknowledgement.
In October 2018, I set out to cast a wider net and began requesting logs that document the destruction of documents for all of Baltimore County schools’ central office departments. But the request was interpreted by law office staff as confusing, time prohibitive and too broad.
Then a battle ensued as to what exactly a log was. After providing the definition for a log, I requested a list of all departments which track document destruction with a log. After several rounds of clarification on what that meant, it was finally produced. But not on the list were the Division of Fiscal Services and Office of Accounting. Why? Because neither happened to destroy any documents during the particular time frame that was presented to me, although I had requested a broader time frame. In fact, I had said, “all.”
From then, on forward, I began operating within limited parameters set by the precedent that stopped cold at August 2018 and was applicable only to particular departments.
The revelation that documents, needed for a procurement audit, had been destroyed was – at best – a wake-up call. At worst, it was an indication that other records might be in peril. It’s what I was thinking at the time and it was a possibility I thought should at least be ruled out.
Looking back, I wish I had thought to ask more questions. In fact, looking back, I wish I had thought to do a lot more.
Looking back, I wish that I had pointed out to the school district, during my dozens of requests for public records, that I was not seeking information on irrelevant facts, such as relocated or destroyed computer mice, monitors or furniture from the system’s law office. It was pretty apparent that I was not seeking that type of information, but I was gladly provided with it.
I learned through trial-and-error that words matter. And the combinations of them could either get me a “burgundy side chair,” shred certificates, or a $30 document filled with nonsense, depending on what any given department calls something and on what day I happened to be requesting it.
But while I am being retrospective, a look back at responses I was given to requests for information surrounding any subsequent purges at the school system shows how I was squeezed to go no further than August 2018.
In October 2018, I was told that “destruction logs for the time period of September 17 to August 2018” were available for me to review.
In all fairness, the email also pointed out that it was a small slice of what actually existed. But my idea of a log which tracks the destruction of records for all-time and per-department – versus the district’s idea of destruction logs which were delineated by arbitrary time frames – were incompatible during my requests for the records.
And the teeth-pulling to get the data was exhausting. So were arbitrary records sent to me that were not actually responsive to my requests, such as a documents showing that a 3-hole punch, foldable keyboard and that burgundy side chair that had been transferred to the system’s distribution center. All I was seeking was information on records destroyed in the law office, which, aside from the 2,600 financial forms, the office purportedly only destroyed 46 records in 2010, and three files between 2016 and 2018.
But in response to my first restriction, I at least tried to make my case clear from the outset. “…You stated that I could view destruction logs from 2017 to 2018 (available immediately to view). Why are the logs limited to that time frame? Please provide a time for me to view the documents and I will view what is available. However I am unclear on how you can easily pull up a limited part of my request, but not the entirety of the destruction logs (which I have requested). I have requested ALL dates that are available on each log. Why is only one year of my request being provided immediately?” I said in an Oct 8, 2018 email.
One month later, financial records from the accounting department’s file room would be relocated, purportedly scanned and destroyed. Then, one month later, it happened again. Both of these events occurred after August of 2018.
Earlier this month, I was held back by the same date. According to an October 3rd email from the systems’s law office, I was told, “As you were previously advised, your requests seek records for the time period of November 2017 to December 2018 concerning hiring employees and/or contractors to dispose of school system records. On August 24, 2018, the Board of Education instituted a system-wide ban on the destruction of records. Although subsequently amended to remove schools and certain offices, this ban still includes the Office of Law, Office of the Superintendent, the Office of Internal Audit, and any other central offices located at 6901 N. Charles Street. Therefore, the search for records will include the time frame of November 1, 2017, to August 24, 2018.”.
As it turned out, the ban proved to be ineffective when – last week – I was sent records proving the destruction of even more documents while the ban was in effect, which was supposed to prohibit the destruction of central office documents, according to the law office on Oct 3.
The law office has clearly acknowledged the ban on document destruction and to which departments it applied, as recently as this month, while choosing to limit some of my record requests (unilaterally and somewhat arbitrarily) by the date the ban went into effect.
Meanwhile, the school system has chosen not to comment when asked why, and under whose authority, records were destroyed from a file room for the Office of Accounting and Finance while a ban was in effect.
What’s more is that on Tuesday the school board will consider lifting the ban altogether, which seems rather irresponsible, considering there is an active legislative audit underway, and the system’s history of destroying relevant documents needed for audits.
Like many historical and unfortunate happenings at Baltimore County Public Schools, the seemingly abrupt effort to lift the ban while the system is being actively audited (again) defies logic.
After 14 months and 40-some-odd record requests, I can say that what I know now is almost as much as I did at the beginning – which means that you know almost nothing about this mystery, too. For that, I apologize. Trust me, I’ve tried.
Even after all of this time, I still have more questions than I do answers. While those answers might never come to light, I’ll always wonder: what else was destroyed – and why?