First there was public uproar about how members of Montgomery County’s Board of Education used their district-issued credit cards. Now comes fallout regarding the $140,000 in legal bills that piled up as the records for those credit cards went under review and investigation.
Board President Phil Kauffman (At Large) defended the legal costs in a commentary recently published by The Washington Post, arguing that hiring outside lawyers to examine members’ spending decisions was “the right thing to do” as the school board sought to examine its own actions and come up with new procedures.
“Objectivity was an important part of this process,” he wrote, saying that the board hired the Venable law firm for its experience handling public-integrity issues. The board asked Venable to review board expense records, provide a written report and recommend actions.
“This is standard operating procedure when an organization is reviewing its own practices, whether it’s a business, a sports league or a government agency,” Kauffman wrote.
But several Montgomery County Council members and a Montgomery watchdog group have challenged the need to involve outside lawyers and assailed the cost of the help.
“I just don’t think there is any way you can tie a ribbon on the fact that our school board spent $140,000 getting advice on how to stop wasting money and make it look good,” County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said.
Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) said he found the hiring of the law firm wasteful and unnecessary. “The solution was obvious: to get rid of the credit cards and adopt policies that were reasonable,” he said.
The disagreement comes as the school system is crafting its budget proposal for next year. About half of the county’s operating budget goes to schools, but the county council has little direct say in school spending decisions, sometimes a source of tension.
The focus on district-paid credit cards started after the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, a watchdog group, posted records online showing that school board member Christopher S. Barclay (Silver Spring) made a series of unauthorized purchases that required reimbursement. In three instances, he repaid the school system nine to 12 months after he made the charges, according to a review by The Washington Post. Barclay has voiced regret and said he never had any intention but to make the reimbursements.
Other board spending also came under scrutiny, including charges for restaurant meals and stays in Washington-area hotels during conferences. In July, the board passed a set of changes to rules and oversight, and it got rid of district-funded board credit cards.
That action followed a Venable report that cited weaknesses and ambiguities in board procedures and suggested that board members give up the cards. Venable said it found no evidence that board members intentionally misused credit cards for personal expenses.
County Council member Cherri Branson (D-Eastern County) said she continues to question the legal expenses and wants to know why an auditor was not asked to review the records “at a potential savings to the taxpayer.” She noted that the cost for the lawyers rivaled the board members’ combined annual salaries. “There is something about this that doesn’t smack of good stewardship to me,” she said.
A leader with the Parents’ Coalition asserted that Venable might not be an entirely independent voice because the law firm regularly works with the school board.
“They were already getting legal work on a consistent basis,” activist Janis Sartucci said. “This was a long-standing relationship.” The school system has paid Venable more than $600,000 in the past two fiscal years, an amount that includes $112,569 of the legal fees at issue, records show.
Board Vice President Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) said she regarded the law firm’s work as “a very independent, thorough review,” with attorneys poring over five years of her expense reports “with a fine-tooth comb.”
Chris Till, a spokeswoman for Venable, said that the law firm does not comment on client matters.
In his commentary, Kauffman said the lawyers’ guidance helped the board decide to give up credit cards and respond to an inquiry by the Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor, which found that the credit-card use did not rise to the level of criminal misconduct. A letter from the state prosecutor said the office had taken note of the Venable review.
School Board member Michael A. Durso (District 5) said that the hiring of lawyers was a “no-win situation,” with the school system either facing legal bills or conducting a self-investigation. “I think we really had to do it the way we did and with a firm that we had confidence would do a thorough job,” he said.
Leventhal, the county council member, said he had questions about school officials’ use of credit cards dating to early 2011, when he wrote an e-mail to board members after activists raised concerns about school funds being used for restaurant meals.
“In these austere times, it seems to me that we should not be routinely eating lunch at the taxpayers’ expense,” Leventhal wrote in January 2011, according to a copy of the e-mail he provided to The Post.
Leventhal said that after he asked for policies on credit-card use, he got a reply from the board’s chief of staff saying that Barclay, then the board president, had asked him to send a link to a purchasing card user guide. Leventhal replied that the link did not have the information he was looking for and asked for pertinent policies, but that e-mail went unanswered, he said.
The exchange left him believing that “my question was deflected and not taken seriously,” Leventhal said. He said he brought up the old e-mail because “I think it is just not credible to say we didn’t know about this until 2014 and, because we didn’t know about these expenses, we need to spend a huge amount of money going through records and reconstructing what happened.”
Barclay said he did not recall the details of the 2011 e-mail but was sure he sought to answer the question and thought the concerns were related to meals the former superintendent expensed, which he did not see as improper.
Sartucci, of the Parents’ Coalition, said there remains a lot to learn about the board’s recent spending, even with the lawyers’ involvement. “We certainly don’t have an explanation for many, many of the charges that were there,” she said.