Payment halted on Coppin State pact with Young Deal violates law, state lawyers advise university regents

Lawmakers consider hiring independent counsel

December 06, 1997|By Mike Bowler and Thomas W. Waldron | Mike Bowler and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Walter F. Roche Jr., Scott Higham and Michael Dresser contributed to this report.

The University System of Maryland halted payments yesterday on a consulting contract between Coppin State College and state Sen. Larry Young and asked its audit committee to investigate the relationship between the senator and the publicly supported campus.

Also yesterday, Annapolis lawmakers were planning to take the unusual step of hiring an independent counsel to lead a legislative ethics investigation into Young's outside business 11 interests, sources said.

Lance W. Billingsley, chairman of the 17-member university governing board, said the regents were advised by state lawyers that the $5,000-a-month contract was in violation of Maryland procurement laws.

The Sun reported Wednesday that the LY Group, a consulting firm headed by Young, has collected $33,500 in consulting fees from September 1996 to July from Coppin State, which relies heavily on funding from the General Assembly.

Yesterday, the regents discussed the Young contract for more than an hour behind closed doors. Coppin State President Calvin W. Burnett, who attended the meeting, said afterward that he was not reprimanded by the board.

Billingsley said a number of questions about the contract remain.

"Perhaps it was an innocent act on Cal's part," Billingsley said. "Perhaps it was a very willful violation. Probably it wasn't. We want our audit committee to find out what he did, why he did it and how he did it."

Billingsley said the regents also appointed a committee "to look into all other instances where consulting contracts might exist" and to examine whether outside consulting contracts are adequately covered by university policy.

On Thursday, Merit Behavioral Care Corp. of New Jersey said it would end a $7,000-a-month consulting arrangement with Young's LY Group at the end of this month. A spokeswoman said yesterday that Young's firm has collected $46,300 in consulting fees since 1996.

Those fees do not include $50,000 in payments Merit made over the past two years to another corporation Young controls, the National Black Health Study Group.

Regents board members said yesterday that they found a number of state legislators employed on several of the 11 college campuses in the state system.

Only one other consulting contract with a state legislator turned up in the search.

Del. Marilyn R. Goldwater, a Montgomery County Democrat and retired nurse, has a no-bid contract with the School of Nursing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Goldwater said her contract calls for her to be paid $50 an hour up to an annual limit of $10,000 for helping to coordinate the operations of the Governor's Wellmobile -- a mobile clinic that brings health services to underprivileged children.

The delegate said that she cleared the contract with the state retirement system and reported it to the State Ethics Commission and the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee before accepting it. Young did not report his Coppin State contract to the joint ethics panel, state records show.

Goldwater said that she is willing to forfeit the consulting work.

"If it's going to create a major issue for the university, I don't need it," she said.

The delegate, who does not serve on a budget committee, said '' she would recuse herself if a vote involving the School of Nursing were to come up before the General Assembly.

So far, she said, she hasn't had to recuse herself.

Burnett, the Coppin State president, said yesterday that he relied on his school's procurement office for advice when he entered into negotiations with Young.

"I considered it a contract, just like any other contract we negotiate," Burnett said, "and I want it to be known that we went to him. He didn't approach us."

Burnett said Young called him Wednesday, the day The Sun published its article on Young's outside business interests. He said the senator canceled the contract himself.

"He said, 'It looks like we can't go on with it,' " Burnett said.

Burnett said Young helped Coppin State approach "health-oriented foundations" for funds. He said the West Baltimore Democrat was also working on a plan to ask city churches to fund scholarships for needy Coppin State students.

"I was fund-raising-driven through all of this," the college president explained.

Billingsley said university officials place the amount paid by Coppin State to Young at "between $16,000 and $17,000." But seven purchase orders supplied by Coppin State to The Sun show the amount to be $33,500.

The Coppin State arrangement with Young, Billingsley said, was a "sole-source" contract, meaning that it could be given without competitive bidding to a contractor with an expertise or unique skill, such as fund raising.

"But you have to take certain acts to justify a sole-source contract," Billingsley said, "and the attorney general has told us he [Burnett] didn't do that."

The cancellation of the contract comes after The Sun reported Wednesday that Young, who is chairman of the influential

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