At Bowie State, a tale of checks and balances Hired to fix fiscal ills, officer had own woes

May 12, 1998|By Tom Pelton and Ivan Penn | Tom Pelton and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

When auditors uncovered problems at the nonprofit foundation that raises money for Bowie State University, the school president turned to an unlikely candidate for a cleanup: an administrator whose own financial history is marked by a trail of bounced checks, loan defaults and overdue taxes.

Russell A. Davis, who in January was asked to straighten out the finances of the Bowie State University Foundation, was at the time having money taken from his wages to repay $3,873 that he improperly took from another nonprofit organization he once headed.

Moreover, Bowie State President Nathanael Pollard Jr., who tapped Davis for the foundation job, had been told four years earlier by an official of the Maryland Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development that Davis had "embezzled" the money from the group and would not return it, according to court files.

Pollard says he does not recall receiving the letter about Davis, who is vice president of student affairs at the 5,200-student university in Prince George's County. Pollard, who has raised Davis' salary from $53,900 in 1994 to $82,500 in 1998, says he is confident that Davis can untangle the finances of the foundation, which raises money for such projects as scholarships and research.

Davis attributes his financial difficulties, which stretch back to 1989,to an unrelated series of setbacks. He says the problems have no relationship to his ability to run the foundation's finances.

According to court records:

The counseling association, which holds seminars on cultural diversity, gets a portion of Davis' pay as a result of a legal judgment. A judge ordered him to repay money taken from the group's savings account while he served as its president in 1992-1993.

Davis has failed to pay federal taxes; has been sued six times for a total of $43,298 in bad debts since 1990; has defaulted on more than $16,000 in student loans; has had his university wages garnished five times; and has written bad checks for such items as state vehicle taxes, a bank withdrawal and $3,140 in rent.

Baltimore district courts have an active warrant for Davis' arrest in connection with a charge that he failed to return a rental car in 1991.

The problems have come to light at a time when Davis is responsible for the finances of a major fund-raising campaign designed to continue Bowie's transformation from a commuter school for teachers into a more selective university featuring high-technology education.

Last month, the foundation held a fund-raising gala attended by Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis at Washington's Marriott hotel. There, Pollard announced that Bowie State was upping its goal from $7 million to $10 million by the year 2002.

Money from the campaign will go to the foundation, which supports Bowie State through donations and government grants.

Defends actions

Davis, 39, a former bank teller from Wilmington, Del., strongly defends his actions. He says he has paid off almost all his personal debts and is working to get the foundation's books in order.

"We are in the process of rebuilding the foundation from the ground up," said Davis, who holds a doctoral degree in education and has worked at Bowie State for eight years, rising from director of the counseling center. "There needed to be better checks and balances. And now those have been put in place."

Pollard declined to comment on his recommendation to the foundation's board that Davis become its new interim executive director, adding to his responsibilities at the university. Pollard said an auditor's report released last week after a Freedom of Information Act request has motivated the foundation to improve its accounting and management.

"I have confidence in the leadership of the foundation and in the foundation board," Pollard said. "We are now going to move forward with the recommendations in the auditor's report."

Disturbed by move

But Lance Billingsley, chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, said yesterday that he was disturbed by Pollard's move to back Davis as head of the foundation. "Certainly there have to be very serious questions about the gentleman's ability to be executive director, particularly in a fiduciary capacity."

Auditors have noted problems at the foundation for several years. Annual audits for fiscal years 1996, 1994 and 1993 said the organization had inadequate internal controls over money.

The most recent audit, performed by the Baltimore accounting firm of King, King and Associates, says the foundation overspent its general operating budget or "unrestricted funds" by $63,869 in its 1997 fiscal year. The foundation improperly used restricted scholarship and campus activity money to cover the deficit, according to the report.

The spending left 16 university program and scholarship funds in the red, including the Athletic Fund, down $14,750; the Bowie State Track Fund, down $9,492; and the Kaiser Permanente Nursing Fund, down $1,151, the audit states.

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