Before Sentencing, Hornsby Offers Letter

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Andre J. Hornsby, the former Prince George's County schools chief convicted on public corruption charges, describes himself to the federal judge who will sentence him today as a person who "can still be a positive force in society."

In a letter to the judge, Hornsby wrote that his "dedication to public service" was a choice and that his leadership style "ruffles a lot of feathers." The former educator admitted no wrongdoing but apologized to supporters, saying, "this has been a humbling experience that I would wish on no one."

Prosecutors are seeking a sentence of as long as 15 years for Hornsby, who was found guilty in July on fraud and obstruction charges. He resigned in 2005 amid accusations that he secretly arranged for a contract to be awarded to a company that employed his girlfriend.

Defense attorney Robert C. Bonsib has filed a lengthy memorandum at U.S. District Court in Greenbelt arguing for leniency. Along with Bonsib's words, the defense submission includes written testimonials from 45 of Hornsby's friends and colleagues and a video tribute produced while Hornsby was running the schools system.

It also contains private letters from Hornsby's family and the letter from Hornsby, which opens with him thanking Judge Peter J. Messitte "for recognizing my accomplishments in life by addressing me as Dr. Andre Hornsby."

Hornsby, 55, wrote that although the prosecution might mark the end of his career, "it should not be an end to what I have to offer society."

Hornsby, who arrived in Prince George's in 2003 promising to uplift its troubled school system, described in the letter his parents' separation when he was 6 years old and mentions drug use as a high school athlete. The choice to dedicate himself to public service, he wrote, has given him "great satisfaction and rewards through fighting for the underserved."

Hornsby was indicted in 2006. A grand jury alleged that he helped his girlfriend, a saleswoman for an educational technology firm, broker a contract worth almost a million dollars, for which she gave him half of her $20,000 commission. The FBI videotaped him in a Bowie motel room taking what prosecutors said was a $1,000 deposit on a $145,000 kickback from a longtime associate who was secretly cooperating with investigators.

A trial last fall ended in a hung jury. At a retrial this summer, a jury convicted him of fraud, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice -- in all, six of the 22 counts charged in the second trial. The jury deadlocked on 14 counts and acquitted on two.

Hornsby had maintained his innocence and insisted that he had always put his students first.

Messitte, who presided over both trials, has a reputation for long sentences, especially in cases such as Hornsby's.

"For white-collar cases, he can be tough," said Paul F. Kemp, a Maryland defense attorney who practices in federal court and who has had cases before Messitte. "He is someone who believes that to whom much is given, much is expected."

Washington defense attorney Barry Boss, an expert on federal sentencing, said that letters such as Hornsby's can prove valuable to defendants.

"I think that to the extent it gives the full picture, it can only be helpful."

The other prong of Hornsby's sentencing strategy is a legal argument that the judge should view his dealings with girlfriend Sienna Owens as a simple conflict of interest. Were the judge to accept that argument, it would change the calculus under the federal sentencing guidelines.

The amount of the loss incurred by the county, for example, would not be factored into the sentencing score calculated by court officials. Nor would the question of whether Hornsby had a high-level decision-making role be considered in determining the appropriate range under the sentencing guidelines. "It would make a substantial difference," Boss said.

It is not, however, an easy argument to win, other defense attorneys say, and in a 22-page response, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael R. Pauzé and Stuart A. Berman attacked it.

From the start, Hornsby was involved, secretly working with Owens to negotiate a much bigger contract than school officials were contemplating, prosecutors argue. After their involvement in the deal became public, Hornsby told Owens to cover their tracks, they contend, saying that his conduct indicated "an elaborate scheme to defraud."

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