((Read through for UPDATE: Baltimore school officials respond.))
Maryland State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh today is blasting Baltimore City Public School officials for stonewalling investigators and refusing to turn over documents, as his office sought to build a case against the owner of a private tutoring company which allegedly bilked the system out of more than $100,000 using a fraudulent-billing scam.
The school system’s handling of the case was “deplorable,” Rohrbaugh said, as his staff was releasing the basic details of the indictment Wednesday of Tracy Denise Queen, 40, of Reisterstown, president of Queens Mobile Education, on one count of theft and another count of attempted theft .
“They were reluctant to give us records,” Rohrbaugh complained, “they cited statutes that had no application.” He said his office was getting nowhere with the school officials’ lawyers until he personally contacted city schools CEO Andres Alonso.
“It was very disappointing,” he said. “It took the intervention of Dr. Alonso to get any cooperation at all out of them.”
Rohrbaugh also said he was “shocked” that school officials — informed of the possible fraud in Dec. 2009 — never came to law enforcement to report the possibility that a crime had been committed.
Rohrbaugh was also pointing out today that Queen currently directs a school for special education students in Prince George’s County run by Sheppard Pratt Health Systems, the Forbush School at Edgar Allan Poe. “She’s actually the principal there,” he said
Baltimore students who qualify for special education services are eligible for special tutoring which is free to the parents, but paid for by the school using state and federal funds.
The school system recommends tutors from a list of approved private providers and these contractors report their hours to BCPS. It is those records, Rohrbaugh said, which Queen allegedly falsified, claiming tutoring took place for approximately 100 children.
A phone call today by The Brew to Jay Salkauskas, head of monitoring and compliance for the BCPS Offfice of Special Education, was not returned .
Baltimore City school officials had no comment on the matter and would possibly be issuing a statement to the media later, said spokeswoman Edie House-Foster.
“I am just hearing about this now,” she said.
UPDATE: House-Foster sent this statement on behalf of Baltimore City Schools today:
“City Schools does not tolerate fraud in services to our students. When City Schools was alerted to the alleged fraud in November 2009, we immediately terminated the contract with Ms. Queen, sought repayment, and have worked with the State Prosecutor over the past year, providing over 80,000 pages of documents. We will continue to make staff available to support the investigation and look forward to whatever assistance the State Prosecutor can provide in identifying fraud by Ms. Queen. We also look forward to using the results of these proceedings to assist our efforts to recover any funds that are due to us.”
In additional comments from BCPS, a schools spokesman quoted yesterday in The Baltimore Sun said that their separate investigation verified $44,000 worth of fraudulent billion. The remarks by Michael Sarbanes, executive director of the office of partnerships, communications and community engagement, did not directly address Rohrbaugh’s allegations that school officials refused to cooperate with his office.
A parent who discovered that Queens Mobile appeared to be forging her signature and billing the school system for tutoring her son never received, was flabbergasted by school officials’ behavior.
“I found it very disturbing,” said former Baltimore Sun reporter and occasional Brew contributor Joan Jacobson, who brought the matter to the prosecutors’ attention. “If I hadn’t come forward, would they ever have done anything?”
Jacobson said that a few hours after the 2009 phone conversation with school officials in which it became apparent that her signature had been forged, they called her back to encourage her to just begin her son’s tutoring again, with a different tutor — with proper qualifications, but from the same company.
“I told them I did not want a tutor from a company that may have stolen tax dollars and forged my signature,” she wrote, in an essay about the experience for Baltimore Brew. “They seemed reluctant, explaining that Queens Mobile had many good tutors and that the school system had a good relationship with the company’s owner.”
Jacobson said she heard nothing about the case for months and had no idea that, as Rohrbaugh now explains it, the delay was due to foot-dragging by BCPS that didn’t end until he sought help from Alonso a few months ago.
“I was prepared to go even higher, but (Alonso) stepped in,” Rohrbaugh said.
Queen, of the 200 Block of Bentley Hill Drive, was arrested by Maryland State Police today.
According to the indictment, the alleged theft took place from July 2006 to December 2009. Queen is charged with submitting false documentation for tutoring services for special education students in Baltimore City. The charge brings a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and a $25,000 fine or both.
The attempted theft charge, which carries a maximum ten years in prison and $10,000 fine, stems from additional falsified invoices for somewhere between $1,000 and $10,000 that the school system did not pay on because they had discovered the scheme at that point.
No court date has been set yet in the case. Meanwhile questions remain about the level of Queen’s involvement with the school system, including her claim on Linked-In and on her company’s website that she has been a manager of special education services for the Baltimore City Public School System. She also says she has a Master’s degree from Coppin State University and worked for a host of organizations and schools in the city.
Among those we contacted who said they knew of no affiliation with Queen or her company: Patterson Park Charter School, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, the Inner Harbor East Academy for Young Scholars and the William Paca Elementary School.
The name did ring a bell at Northwood Appold Elemenary School, where a secretary said “I am not at liberty to discuss this issue.”
Another question for school officials will be whether students were given the proper tutoring, once the false invoices were discovered. Rohrbaugh says flatly that they weren’t.
“The children are the ones harmed by this,” Rohrbaugh said. “The kids that needed tutoring never got it.”
Rohrbaugh said he believes the school system did stop using the company immediately after the questionable practices came to light last year. But he noted that as prosecutors were battling with the school system to get documents, Queen was continuing her involvement with teaching and tutoring children in area educational institutions.
Queen is listed, for example, as the principal of the Forbush School at Edgar Allan Poe, in Suitland .
The person who answered the phone at the Forbush school today but declined to give her name, confirmed that Queen is the principal but would not comment further.
The website for the Forbush School describes it as “approved as a Type II, 12 month program by the Maryland State Department of Education.” Asked for someone to comment on the matter, the Sheppard Pratt switchboard referred The Brew to Carol Barton, who did not return messages left today.
Rohrbaugh, who is preparing to retire and awaiting the announcement of his successor by Gov. Martin O’Malley, found it particularly poignant that this case is his swan song.
His first case as state prosecutor involved a group of who conspired to defraud the city school system out of more than $4 million. Among those charged in that scheme was businessman Gilbert Saperstein, who pled guilty to defrauding the school system of $3.3 million.
“It’s a sad commentary on the Baltimore City Public School System that here we are still with the same problems, the same lack of oversight,” he said. “Why they only have three auditors for a billion dollar budget I do not understand. And why the legislature doesn’t seem to care, I don’t understand that either.”