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No-bid OK followed S. Africa junket: Software firm had paid two school officials' way.

"I don't need a lawyer to tell me this is a violation of the ethics policy," Vallas said. "These two individuals stumbled."

Here's the press release announcing the purchase of Plato.

Three dozen school excecutives from around the country went on this junket. Wouldn't you like to know how this journey helped the schoolchildren of Philadelphia? NOTE: Dr. Andre Hornsby, recently, of Prince George's County infamy (earlier from Houston), was under investigation for the same Plato-paid-for trip.

By Ken Dilanian

Five months after taking a trip to South Africa subsidized by an education-software firm, two Philadelphia School District officials signed off on a $926,000 no-bid contract with that company.

The 10-day excursion in June 2004, which included a safari and a dinner hosted by a Zulu king, was paid for in part by Plato Learning Inc., one of the nation's biggest education software dealers.

The officials - chief academic officer Gregory E. Thornton, the district's number-two executive, and administrator Rosalind Chivis - were directly involved in the decision to buy the software from Plato without bidding.

Chivis, who works under Thornton, said in an interview yesterday that she chose Plato. Thornton signed off on her recommendation.

After questions from The Inquirer yesterday, schools chief Paul Vallas said the trip was improper and the employees would be disciplined. He also said he would reinforce the district's ethics rules.

"I don't need a lawyer to tell me this is a violation of the ethics policy," Vallas said. "These two individuals stumbled."

Neither declared the trip on an annual financial-disclosure form, in apparent violation of a state ethics-law requirement that public officials report gifts and trips paid for by private organizations.

Thornton said he would amend his form.

It is a crime for a public official to accept gifts in exchange for official acts.

Both said the trip, attended by two Plato executives and three dozen administrators from around the country, had nothing to do with the software purchase.

Thornton said the journey, the "trip of a lifetime," was a valuable learning experience.

"There was never a sales presentation, there was never a product," he said. "Maybe I'm being a little naive. They appeared to be sincerely interested in the substance of education in Africa."

Chivis echoed that. "It was a blessing," she said, saying she was inspired by the devotion of children studying in mud huts.

They also said they did not consider the possibility that the trip ran afoul of the ethics policy, which prohibits senior employees from accepting anything of value from those in a position to benefit from their official actions.

Vallas said he knew at the time that Thornton had gone on the trip, but he said he did not know that Plato had subsidized it or that Chivis had attended.

He said the two never should have taken the trip, but having taken it, he added, they should have disclosed it and recused themselves from action on the Plato contract.

"When the Plato contract came up, that should have raised the flag. They should have stepped away," he said.

The 2004 trip was the second to South Africa organized by the Maryland-based National Association of Black School Educators.

In an interview, executive director Quentin Lawson said Plato Learning helped pay for both the 2003 and 2004 trips. He defended the practice, saying it was routine for school vendors to subsidize trips and conferences for educator associations.

Each of the school officials who attended was asked to pay $2,000 out of pocket, and an additional $2,500 if a spouse came along, he said. Lawson said he did not know the total per-person cost. A travel agent contacted by The Inquirer said it probably cost at least $6,500 per person, including airfare.

The two Philadelphia officials offered different accounts yesterday about what they paid and what they knew about who was subsidizing the trip. Chivis' account was contradicted in part by Lawson.

Thornton said he knew Plato was the chief sponsor of the trip. He brought his wife, so his total cost was $4,500. He said he knew the value of the trip was far higher than that.

He said his only role in the Plato contract was to grant routine approval. Plato officials never lobbied him about the contract, he said.

Thornton said it never crossed his mind to recuse himself from involvement in the contract award.

"I never put the two and two together," he said. "That was maybe shortsighted on my part."

Thornton said he did not report the trip on his financial-disclosure statement because he "didn't think of it as a gift."

The contract was funded by a federal grant designed to help low-income and minority students.

Chivis, who supervised the grant program, said she was never made aware that Plato was helping to finance the trip.

The company acknowledged doing so when the trip was reported on in September 2004 by the Baltimore Sun - two months before Plato's Philadelphia contract won approval from the School Reform Commission.

"Had I known that, I would have put out a bid, and probably would have selected a different company, just to avoid any hint of wrongdoing," Chivis said.

She said she had dealings with Plato before and after the trip, though she was not sure exactly when she picked it for the no-bid contract.

Chivis said that she paid $1,000 for the trip and that the black educators' group gave her a scholarship for another $1,000.

However, Lawson, the group's director, said there was no such scholarship. Plato Learning, not the educators' group, defrayed part or all of the $2,000 costs for certain attendees, he said.

Chivis could not be reached for comment after the Lawson interview, which took place after working hours.

In March 2005, Chivis was quoted in a Plato news release announcing the contract.

"We chose Plato Learning because it gives our schools the capacity to service diverse academic needs with technology that engages our students and allows them to progress at individual rates," Chivis was quoted as saying.

The district has had problems getting the software to work. Chivis said the blame lies in incompatibilities with the school district's computer servers.

Choosing his words carefully, Vallas said he had no reason to question the contract award to Plato, which he said had a good reputation.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz disagreed. "There is a big burden of proof to demonstrate that there is no connection between a large benefit like a full-paid trip to Africa and the award of a $900,000 contract," he said.

Plato officials did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

Then-Plato vice president John C. Super said in an e-mail to the Sun that the company sponsored the trips out of "a responsibility to provide a portion of its marketing dollars to support public/private partnerships." He added that "there are no sales presentations associated with these trips."

Federal and state investigators are examining the trip as part of an investigation into a Maryland school official, according to news reports.

Plato's "code of business conduct and ethics," posted on the company's Web site, says, "When the company is dealing with government employees or those on the government's behalf, providing education, transportation, meals, entertainment or other things of value may be entirely unacceptable, and may even violate certain federal, state, local or foreign laws and regulations," the policy says.

Plato lost millions of dollars last year and is projected to lose as much as $11.5 million this year.

Vallas said top school officials will soon be required to fill out a financial-disclosure form; undergo ethics training each year; and sign a statement saying they have read the ethics policy. Also, all travel will have to be disclosed and approved.

"Going forward, if people violate the ethics policy, they are going to get fired, period," Vallas said.


— Ken Dilanian
Philadelphia Inquirer



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