You've got a new, very public, big job with lots of responsibility and a mandate to set an example for the people you work for, who happen to be children.

From the start, people want to help: A company that does business with you offers you a free, 10-day trip to Africa. Another company, one that employs the woman you live with, wants to sell you $1 million worth of its products. A guy who used to work for you in your previous job offers to take on some of your contracting work, without any competitive bidding for the work.

Easy calls, right? No, no and no. Thanks, but no thanks.

Unless you are Andre Hornsby, chief of the Prince George's County school system. In which case, you go with yes, yes and yes.

Investigators with the county, state and federal governments are examining Hornsby's actions. But parents and teachers have already absorbed this lesson: No matter how much good Hornsby achieves in the county's classrooms, he has forsaken his place as a moral authority and mortgaged his value to the school system.

The true crime in the Hornsby saga is that the record shows that he has worn ethical blinders not only since arriving here 16 months ago, but throughout his career. As state Del. Jim Hubbard, education chairman of the county's delegation to Annapolis, puts it, "There's a pattern here that goes back to his jobs in Yonkers (N.Y.) and Houston. All of this was foreseeable, even if it wasn't foreseen."

Rewind the time machine: spring 2003. Prince George's is shopping for a new chief for its troubled schools. Prince George's students rank next to last in Maryland on most test scores; only Baltimore schools do worse.

But when the top job opens in systems with lousy scores, large minority populations and chronic turnover in leadership, the candidate pool tends not to be deep. "Top-notch candidates don't want to come here because of the core educational problems," Hubbard says. "When we saw the finalists, the board should have continued the search."

Instead, the board focused on Hornsby. They knew he had been fired from his superintendent job in Yonkers, but they attributed that to a personality clash with the mayor. They knew he had battled the unions in Yonkers, but they figured that meant he was tough.

The board also knew that the Yonkers inspector general, in a report completed after Hornsby's firing, had found that he "accepted improper gratuities from the Xerox Corporation," which he had awarded an "excessive" $1.4 million contract for copiers, even though a bid from Minolta would have cost much less.

Inspector General Philip Zisman's scathing report said Hornsby refused to meet with Minolta representatives, accepted Xerox's gift of an expense-paid trip to the Ryder Cup golf tournament, took a Palm Pilot awarded by Xerox, twice served as a guest speaker at Xerox events at the company's expense and refused to answer questions about any aspect of the Xerox deal.

Zisman concluded that Hornsby violated both state and school ethics rules and that "his involvement with Xerox must have greatly influenced the decision-making process."

No one involved in the hiring process in Prince George's can be surprised that Hornsby now stands accused of approving a $1 million, sole-source contract with LeapFrog software for teaching tools, or that Hornsby lives with a saleswoman for LeapFrog. Hornsby said only that LeapFrog makes the product he needed, but in fact, two other companies, Fisher-Price and Publications International, compete with LeapFrog's system.

The investigations actually hamper the board's ability to deal with the Hornsby problem. Once the legal gears start grinding, politicians feel compelled to zip their lips and wait.

Hornsby dismisses all this as "character assassination" designed to slow his reforms of the system. But it is Hornsby who has shot himself in the foot at each stop along his career path.

While the school board waits, Hubbard and other legislators plan to change state ethics rules to make school superintendents meet the same standards that govern politicians. "If I took a trip to Africa with a vendor for the state of Maryland, I'd have a special prosecutor waiting on my doorstep when I came home," Hubbard says. "But a superintendent can get away with it. We're going to change that."

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com