Probe could affect Coppin's Burnett School president struck consulting deal with Young

Ethics Probe Of Senator Young

January 14, 1998|By Mike Bowler and Thomas W. Waldron | Mike Bowler and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this article.

Maryland university leaders expanded their audit of state Sen. Larry Young's financial arrangement with Coppin State College yesterday -- amid speculation that the Young affair might cost the job of the college's longtime president, Calvin W. Burnett.

In light of a harshly critical report from the General Assembly's ethics committee, Lance W. Billingsley, chairman of the University System of Maryland regents, ordered system auditors yesterday to look at the services provided by the West Baltimore senator in exchange for $34,500 in payments from the public college since August 1996.

University system auditors had been probing the circumstances surrounding the letting of the no-bid consulting contracts, Billingsley said, "but in light of the ethics committee report, there are now questions whether any services were performed."

"Secondly," he said, "we want to look into whether the value of those services is reasonable in light of the amounts paid."

The auditors are to report to the full regents board at its next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 6.

Burnett, 65, Coppin's president for 28 years, could not be reached yesterday. A secretary at his office said he would not comment, "on the advice of counsel."

Meanwhile, there is speculation in Annapolis and in higher education circles that Burnett's job might fall victim to the controversy.

"I think we had a man who, for whatever reason, made a decision to fall on his sword for Larry Young," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who is co-chairman of the ethics committee.

"I think Dr. Burnett was had. Even if he made a terrible error in judgment, I don't think you should crucify the guy. Dr. Burnett has had a distinguished career at Coppin."

The ethics committee reported that Burnett hired Young on the advice of unidentified people. The Coppin president refused to tell who those people were, saying he didn't want to "implicate" anyone, said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., head of the ethics panel.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he believed the negotiations between Burnett and Young were not "conducted at arm's length."

"President Burnett," he said, "obviously felt a great deal of pressure in entering into that agreement."

University regents were circumspect yesterday, saying they preferred to withhold judgment until completion of their audit.

However, one regent, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "We were all surprised that the payments had been going on that long and in that magnitude. I think the next item on our agenda, sadly, will be a succession plan for Coppin."

Legislative leaders said any disciplining of Burnett is the responsibility of the university system.

System Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg, who is Burnett's boss, said university auditors so far have looked at internal documents and interviewed Burnett.

"I think we have to do something" about Burnett, Langenberg said, adding that the "array of possibilities range from nothing to something draconian."

The regents terminated all contracts with Young last month, after reports in The Sun of his connection with Coppin, and they refused to pay Young's last bill for $5,000 for his November services.

The ethics committee, after its investigation, substantiated much the reporting in The Sun and added fresh allegations. It reported Monday that there is no evidence Young performed the services for which he was paid by Coppin, but that Burnett gave Young a raise from $4,000 to $5,000 a month last spring.

The ethics committee said the only evidence it could find that Young had done anything for Coppin was the trail of the senator's invoices.

"No written contract, informal written agreement or memorandum of understanding was generated," the committee report said.

"No written description or notes of the services provided by Senator Young, if any, were exchanged. No correspondence with Dr. Burnett was undertaken."

Miller said yesterday, "Little or no work was performed for an unbelievably large sum of money."

Many of the services Young claimed to have performed -- soliciting money from churches for scholarships and finding funds for a drug and alcohol abuse prevention program, for example -- "fall into the category of the normal constituent service routinely provided by Maryland legislators," the committee report said.

While Young was receiving regular payments from Coppin, he voted at least twice on legislation directly related to the West Baltimore college, the committee said.

This alleged conflict of interest was one of the charges that led the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics to its stunning recommendation that an expulsion vote be taken by the General Assembly.

Burnett's tenure at Coppin's helm is exceeded among Maryland college and university presidents only by Mebane Turner at the University of Baltimore and Carolyn Manuszac at Villa Julie College.

He said last November that he would like to serve another five years at Coppin.

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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