The Prince George’s County Board of Education voted Thursday night to strip member Carletta Fellows (District 7) of her county-issued credit card after an internal auditor found more than $700 in unauthorized charges for utility bills.
Board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) said she was alerted last month to the charges, which were made in February and March to Pepco, Washington Gas, Comcast and Verizon Wireless.
Fellows, who said during the meeting that she will appeal the action, contends that she appropriately charged costs associated with a home office used for her board duties. In a statement released Friday, she maintained that the charges were justifiable but that she will repay the money because she “will not allow this board to distract from our responsibilities in ensuring a smooth takeover process.”
The action comes as the school leadership is being restructured after a bid by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) to take over the struggling system. A bill approved by state lawmakers gave Baker some additional control, including the power to appoint three new board members and select a chair and vice chair.
Fellows said Thursday that based on private meetings with Jacobs, she has a “different interpretation” on the use of the credit card, which has an annual $5,000 limit.
“We are required to have a home office. Then what kind of costs can we defray?” she asked.
But board attorney Abbey Hairston said the charges were not allowable. She said Fellows did not have a discussion with the school board about having a home office or whether any portion of home expenses could be offset.
Hairston said there is no requirement that board members, who are given a computer, printer, cellphones and other supplies, have a home office. Board policy says expenses are permissible for the installation and monthly charges for home-office telephones, fax and computer lines, cellphones and other telephone devices.
The board could have accepted the auditor’s recommendation to deem the charges as unauthorized or referred the matter to the ethics panel for further review, Jacobs said. Accepting the recommendation, it suspended Fellows’s credit card until the money is reimbursed.
“I’m outraged, because these are taxpayer dollars,” said board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8). “We cannot allow this to move forward.”
Fellows, who is serving her first year, has had a volatile relationship with her colleagues since taking office in December.
Fellows said the board was trying to retaliate against her for that.
“I believe it is a smear campaign because of the position that I took with the county executive,” she said before the meeting. “Instead of giving me due process, they want to smear me in public.”
Board members objected. Burroughs said that “under no standard is it acceptable to pay a gas bill with a [school district] credit card.” Peggy Higgins (District 2), who offered the motion for the discussion to take place in public, said residents deserved transparency.
The 8 to 1 vote, which was taken as emergency action, came after a heated exchange between Jacobs and Fellows about whether the discussion should be held publicly. Only Fellows voted against the action.
As Jacobs began to discuss the charges, Fellows said, “Excuse me.”
“You are out of order,” Jacobs said.
Fellows interjected again. Jacobs banged her gavel and told Fellows she was out of order.
“I think this is out of order,” Fellows shot back. “To me, this is retaliation.”