Public Information Act requests march on for details surrounding the destruction of financial disclosure documents that occurred at Baltimore County Public Schools last year.
Nearing 25 requests since August 2018, in which various inquires aimed at ferreting out any information specific to the destruction of the financial documents – forms designed to capture employees’ outside work or potential conflicts of interests – have hit yet another roadblock.
Despite increasing precision — or “word-gymnastics” — aimed at teasing out the information about how the records were actually destroyed and by whom, and where almost all other known avenues to find the information have been exhausted, Baltimore County Public Schools’ current response on the matter is now silence.
In 2018, 2,600 financial disclosure forms were destroyed preceding a high-profile procurement audit and while a now-Gunpowder Gazette reporter had been requesting the records.
The documents were destroyed by the school system’s law office after its director said the office had simply run out of room to house them.
But despite the fact that the law office maintained the records for at least 21-years, according to its own destruction log which was created on the same day the first round of financial records were requested by the reporter (metadata from a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet shows) and which would be used to log the future destruction of the financial forms, the law office chose April and August of 2018 in which to discard the documents, while making use of a school policy which states that records over four-years-old could be destroyed.
The shredding also occurred within the context of the indictment and conviction of the system’s former Superintendent Dallas Dance. Dance had been convicted on perjury charges for providing misleading information on the same type of documents the law office destroyed. The law office destroyed most of the documents between the time Dance was indicted in January 2018 and when he began his four-month prison sentence in April 2018.
In an effort to find the correct wording to compel the law office to provide the records, on October 11, The Gunpowder Gazette requested public information surrounding “any and all’ costs for “any” type of work done by contractors regarding the financial records. But so far there is no response from the very law office that had the records destroyed.
The statute for the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request process states that an agency has 30 days in which to provide documents, but 10 days in which to respond with what the agency’s action will be, a legal statute with which the school system has failed to comply in this case.
In almost all other cases, the school system has maintained that there are no responsive documents when asked for documentation of all employees, contractors, temporary employees, companies, vendors, costs, expenses, invoices, payment records, checks, and shred certificates provided by shredding companies that provide certified documentation at the conclusion of records destruction for the school system.
Since March, a now-Gunpowder Gazette reporter has asked for details since the destruction of documents, which specifically interfered with her requests and preceded the high-profile procurement audit of the system’s spending practices over a period of time spanning former superintendent Dallas Dance’s tenure from 2012 to 2017. The audit report later noted that financial documents requested for some employees were unavailable for review because they had been destroyed subsequent to – and after – the audit was already underway.
What’s more is, as reported last month by The Gunpowder Gazette, a second known shredding of documents occurred after a moratorium had been put in place in 2018 by the district’s school board which strictly prohibited any further record destruction after initial reports surfaced that the financial disclosure documents had been destroyed nearing the audit.
Regarding that late 2018 removal of documents from the district’s fiscal file room, the law office said that the records had been scanned first, before being destroyed. But an employee, who spoke with The Gunpowder Gazette in October under the condition of anonymity, said the records removed from a file-room-turned-windowless-office for an executive director who went through the records to make space for the office, contained the type of data needed to ensure that the school system and its employees were spending according to approved budgets.
When the employee reviewed documents provided to The Gunpowder Gazette by the school system on what the system said it destroyed and relocated, the employee said that key documents were missing. A recent audit of the school system’s document retention efforts also noted that Baltimore County Public Schools actually lacks sufficient ability to scan documents.
It is not clear why the school system has neglected to acknowledge the latest request for public information, as required by state law, surrounding the destruction of financial disclosure statements. Four requests for updates and/or acknowledgement have also gone unanswered by the law office.
Although the 10 business days have come and gone with respect to at least acknowledging the request per MPIA statute, the next date to watch for comes next week, when the system would be required to provide records requested in the Oct. 11 request, which asked for all payments made to “anyone” and “anything,” and at “any” level of involvement surrounding the preparation for destruction of the financial records.
If that milestone is ignored altogether, seeking relief through the court system or the Attorney Grievance Commission may be the only recourse to prompt a response.