The Prince George’s County school board appeared poised to accept the results of an ethics report involving several of its members Wednesday night, potentially setting the stage for their removal from office — but the panel was blocked from proceeding by the members under investigation.
The vote not to accept the findings of the board’s citizen-led ethics committee came during a four-hour meeting that devolved into chaos, as the board was — for a time — deadlocked over its inability to muster the votes to enter executive session, table the ethics motion, or adjourn.
Finally, around 11 p.m., members threw up their hands and adjourned, leaving uncertain the fate of the members under investigation.
In an interview on Thursday, Chairwoman Juanita Miller said she is “waiting for legal counsel” to determine how to proceed. “This is new territory for all of us.”
The board is without an attorney, as multiple lawyers have quit just this year. (One told Maryland Matters it wasn’t worth the “headache.”)
Prior to the board’s public meeting, members convened in closed session and voted to accept the ethics committee’s determination that half of the panel — seven of the 14 — engaged in acts of wrongdoing.
The seven members under investigation were barred from voting during the closed session.
The substance of the complaints was not disclosed by Miller during the public meeting because they are, by law, supposed to be confidential.
Maryland Matters reported on Tuesday that a five-person ethics panel found sufficient evidence to substantiate three conflict of interest allegations.
One report found that several members of the board who accepted campaign contributions from the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) later voted to require that future school system capital projects be built by companies pre-approved by the union.
A second report found that members voted to hire a “private lobbyist” with the sole focus of getting the General Assembly to convert the current board — made up of both elected and appointed members — to an all-elected body.
A third report concluded that a “reorganization” of the board’s staff was intended “to replace existing staff members with politically connected acquaintances and personal friends of certain Board members.”
The ethics panel recommended that six members of the board — Shayla Adams-Stafford, Raaheela Ahmed, Edward Burroughs III, Kenneth F. Harris II, David Murray and Joshua Thomas — be removed or resign, and that a seventh member, Belinda Queen, be censured.
The board members subject to the probe have vigorously rejected the allegations.
At least four have hired attorneys; three are represented by former State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D).
In an emergency court filing that sought to block the board from acting on the reports on Wednesday, Ryan Lewis, an attorney for Adams-Stafford, alleged that the conflict-of-interest allegations are “easily disprovable based on publicly accessible documents.”
He also argued that the investigation was tainted by the release of the tentative findings to the media and that the entire probe must therefore be dissolved.
Lewis’s bid for a temporary restraining order was denied by Circuit Court Judge William A. Snoddy on Wednesday afternoon.
Potential removal of members
In announcing the board’s closed-door decision to “concur” with the ethics panel’s recommendations, Miller, the board chair, said the committee determined that “certain board members” should be removed from office or censured.
The findings would be sent to the Maryland State Board of Education “to review and make a recommendation to the governor for signature,” she added.
“It’s now public information,” Miller declared.
A former state delegate and a vocal critic of the younger, elected members who are the subject of the allegations, Miller also laid out a process that could result in members being removed from office via the State Ethics Commission.
She that if the state board doesn’t take action on the findings by Aug. 31, the ethics committee “is of the belief that the [state] board will have failed in its statutory duty to properly enforce the state law governing conflicts of interest and on ethical violations.”
The ethics panel, Miller added, “will then consider the option of reporting the [state] board’s dilatory conduct to the state’s ethics commission, which… has the authority to compel local boards of education to comply with the requirements of state law.”
In that case, she said, the State Ethics Commission could petition the circuit court to require “any available equitable relief.”
During the meeting, Adams-Stafford suggested that the board’s closed session action was not valid because it lacked the required number of votes.
Gridlock and disarray
Wednesday’s meeting went off the rails when Miller called for a public vote to ratify the decisions made in executive session.
That motion failed 6-7, with the members identified in the probe, who weren’t allowed to vote in the closed session, outvoting Miller and her allies.
(Miller was appointed by County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks, a Democrat, following the abrupt resignation of Alvin Thornton in December. Her allies consist mostly of other appointed members.)
After the vote, the board then descended into a lengthy period of stalemate that featured cross-talk, questions about procedure, and a series of motions to table the ethics motion, return to executive session or adjourn, all of which failed.
Bill Shelton, an Upper Marlboro attorney who works as a mediator and parliamentarian and who was brought in to referee Wednesday’s session, expressed the concern that the public was getting information meant to be confidential.
“I don’t know who’s listening to this conversation,” he said of the meeting, which was hold over Zoom.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t understand the necessity to have a motion to confirm what you’d already done in the first place,” he added.
Adams-Stafford pointed out that state law requires the board to ratify closed-door decisions in public.
County leaders alarmed by dysfunction
Wednesday’s session further alarmed county leaders who were already concerned about the board’s ability to function.
“Education is the core of our well-being as a county. Our children cannot afford a dysfunctional system,” said M.H. Jim Estepp, CEO of the Prince George’s Business Roundtable and a former County Council member.
“Any allegations of wrongdoing or abuse need to be fully investigated,” he added.