John White was head of crisis communications for Baltimore-Washington International Airport in August 2001 when a helicopter crashed on a taxiway, killing the pilot and a photographer who had been working on the ground for the airport.
Now White has a crisis of a different kind on his hands: He has been hired during a potential public relations catastrophe with Prince George's County School Superintendent Andre J. Hornsby under local, state and federal investigation for his dealings with vendors.
White, currently a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, will report directly to Hornsby starting Monday. His position as a communications officer will pay $98,000 a year.
"I know what I'm getting into, but it's a great opportunity," White said yesterday. He joins a team that includes public information officer Kelly Alexander.
Hornsby has been under scrutiny recently for not disclosing to the school board that he lives with Sienna Owens, a saleswoman for LeapFrog SchoolHouse, a California-based company that sold $1 million worth of products to the school system in June.
And while president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, Hornsby accepted a trip to South Africa in July 2003 from Plato Learning, a Minnesota-based company with which the school system is doing business.
Hornsby has said that he was directly involved in the LeapFrog purchases but that Owens had nothing to do with them because she was a saleswoman in Virginia at the time.
Hornsby has said that his purchasing decisions were not influenced by his personal relationships. The school board's ethics panel and other agencies, including the FBI and the state prosecutor's office, are investigating the purchases.
White said he applied for the job in May, before Hornsby's relationships with vendors became public, and accepted the position three weeks ago. School board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) said that the system has been trying to fill three vacancies in the communications office for months.
"I don't believe this decision is a direct result of anything but the needs of the communications office," Tignor said.
White, 36, graduated from DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and received an MBA from the University of Maryland's University College. He also spent two years as press secretary for Maryland's secretary of state.