By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Former Prince George's County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby was sentenced yesterday to six years in federal prison for steering contracts to a girlfriend and a longtime business associate and then orchestrating what prosecutors called an "egregious" coverup.
The prison sentence marks the nadir for Hornsby, 55, who arrived in the county in 2003 with a reputation as a bold, confident administrator and a mandate to change the school system, which at the time had the second-lowest test scores in Maryland.
Just before U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte announced the sentence in a Greenbelt courtroom, Hornsby spoke for a little more than five minutes. At first, his voice quaked with emotion, but it became stronger as he continued.
"I'm totally embarrassed by what I've put myself into," Hornsby said. He did not admit guilt and said he never imagined that his actions would land him in court.
"I understand the seriousness of my actions. I understand mistakes were made," Hornsby said.
As schools chief, he said, he made thousands of decisions every day. "I was not making those decisions to benefit me," he said. "I was making those decisions to benefit the children of this county."
Messitte imposed the sentence after a hard-fought 3 1/2-hour hearing, during which a dozen educators, citing Hornsby's educational accomplishments and dedication to children, pleaded for leniency on his behalf.
They were countered by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Pauze, who spoke of the kickbacks taken by Hornsby, the evidence he destroyed and the witness he tried to influence.
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 12 1/2 years, at the low end of advisory sentencing guidelines. But Messitte said he could not impose that sentence, in large part because the government had not provided examples of other people convicted of public corruption who have been given similarly harsh sentences.
"Six years is a long time for a man the age of Dr. Hornsby," Messitte said, adding that the sentence was tough enough to have a deterrent effect.
A year ago, a federal jury in Greenbelt deadlocked on the 16 corruption charges Hornsby originally faced. Prosecutors then brought a revised indictment, accusing Hornsby of six additional charges. On July 23, three years after he resigned as schools chief amid an FBI investigation, a jury convicted Hornsby on six of the 22 charges after deliberating for a week. It acquitted him of two charges and deadlocked on the rest.
During the first trial, he bantered easily with reporters during breaks, and even after he was convicted, he did not exhibit any signs of defeat.
That Hornsby was gone yesterday. He entered the courthouse flanked by two of his daughters, Yvette, 24, and Morgan, 15, who hooked their arms with their father's. Hornsby appeared worried, and his hair was noticeably grayer than it was before his first trial.
Hornsby looked at each of the half-dozen educators who spoke to Messitte on his behalf, and he kept his eyes on a computer screen at the defense table as his attorney, Robert Bonsib, played videos of another half-dozen educators praising Hornsby and asking the judge for leniency.
But when his daughter Yvette stood before Messitte to speak of Hornsby's devotion to his family, his gaze veered to the left, away from his daughter.
Bonsib said Hornsby plans to appeal.
There is no parole in the federal system, and most defendants serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. In addition to the six years in prison, Messitte ordered that Hornsby be placed on three years of supervised release.
He must also pay a fine of $20,000, plus $70,000 to Prince George's County in restitution for the $345,000 private report the county paid for to investigate Hornsby's dealings. Messitte said he did not know whether the price of the report was valid.
At Bonsib's request, Messitte ordered Hornsby to serve his sentence at a prison in Oklahoma City, near relatives. The judge also ordered Hornsby to enter an evaluation and treatment program for alcohol abuse while in prison. He said Hornsby had to surrender himself to the federal Bureau of Prisons by Jan. 2.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said he was not disappointed by the sentence. "A six-year sentence is a pretty substantial sentence in a public corruption case," Rosenstein said.
Judy Mickens-Murray, a former member of the Prince George's County Board of Education who opposed Hornsby's selection as schools chief, said she thought the sentence was appropriate. "I think it is important to send a message to children that there are going to be some adults that look out for their welfare, and consequences are important."
Hornsby was accused of secretly steering a school system contract worth almost $1 million to his then-girlfriend, Sienna Owens, a sales representative for LeapFrog Schoolhouse, an educational technology company. Owens testified for the government that she gave Hornsby half her $20,000 commission, in cash.
Federal prosecutors also presented evidence that Cynthia Joffrion, a longtime business associate of Hornsby's, agreed to pay him $145,000 after he arranged for her to negotiate a consulting contract with Prince George's schools.
In what was perhaps the most sensational piece of evidence in the government's case, prosecutors played for the jury a video of Hornsby meeting with Joffrion in a Bowie hotel room in December 2004. On the recording, which was surreptitiously videotaped by the FBI, Hornsby is seen taking $1,000 in cash from Joffrion and stuffing it into his shirt pocket.
Joffrion was secretly cooperating with the FBI.
Federal prosecutors also presented testimony that Hornsby sent his oldest daughter to speak to Owens in what they said was an attempt by Hornsby to tamper with a key government witness.
Hornsby was convicted of honest-services wire fraud, attempted evidence tampering and obstruction of justice.
Prince George's schools officials had hoped Hornsby could help save a public education system plagued by poor performance and leadership turnover.
The school board that hired Hornsby over two other finalists knew that he had been fired from his job as school superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., after publicly feuding with the mayor. He had also been investigated there for allegedly accepting gifts from a school vendor, a charge Hornsby denied.
Still, Hornsby had been credited with raising student performance in Yonkers. By an 8 to 1 vote, the school board gave Hornsby a four-year contract with a $250,000 annual salary. School officials hoped his aggressive management style would deliver results.
During Hornsby's first school year, test scores rose in many county schools, though the state still listed more than 70 county schools, more than a third of the system, as needing improvement.
But questions arose about a year into Hornsby's tenure, after he approved the Leapfrog Schoolhouse purchase. Hornsby used federal anti-poverty funds for the deal and did not inform the board about his relationship with Owens. That relationship surfaced in news reports.
Staff writer Nelson Hernandez also contributed to this report.