University fund-raiser dipped in, auditors say Salisbury State foundation director still on Md. payroll

August 13, 1998|By Tom Pelton and Ivan Penn | Tom Pelton and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

As head of Salisbury State University's fund-raising organization, Robert Gearhart would do anything for his donors. He'd golf with them, send them cards on their birthdays, stand beside their sickbeds.

His attentiveness helped bring millions to the small state school, but Gearhart also used his position to help himself, according to university system auditors.

They say:

He forced university employees to do the work of his home-based consulting company on state time.

He used a university credit card to buy equipment for his boat and to get cash at a betting parlor.

He funneled $19,000 in no-bid work to companies that employed his son.

And as university system auditors closed in, he ordered foundation employees to shred documents that would have revealed his son's role in the business, according to statements the employees gave auditors.

When the university forced Gearhart to resign last year, donors returned the favors, pressuring the university to keep him on the state payroll.

Today, even though he works full time as the top fund-raiser for the University of South Carolina Spartanburg, almost 400 miles from Maryland, Salisbury State still pays him $36,000 a year.

Gearhart's case is an example of the unusual financial arrangements that can take root in the secrecy Maryland's public colleges demand for their private fund-raising organizations.

And taken with recent misspending of at least $100,000 by the Bowie State University Foundation, it raises questions about the oversight of the foundations.

The foundations, run by university officials out of state buildings, are not subject to the oversight of the state legislature or public information laws -- safeguards required of the universities themselves.

Gearhart concedes he made a few minor mistakes but says these should not overshadow his successes over a decade as one of the most efficient fund-raisers in the university system.

He argues he was driven out by a university president who wanted to stop his questions about the president's use of foundation money.

Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he is troubled by the problems at Salisbury and Bowie State uni- versities. He suggested the state should have more oversight over foundations affiliated with the state government.

"Has the state prosecutor looked at these? Because he should," Taylor said. "These examples are very disturbing."

University officials argue that more oversight is unnecessary.

"There is a higher level of public scrutiny for our charity than for any other public charity in the state," said John K. Martin, president of the University of Maryland Foundation and the top fund-raising official in the system.

The foundations have volunteer boards of business leaders to monitor spending, pay accounting firms to conduct annual audits and file summaries of their assets and expenses with the secretary of state.

But critics say the accountants do not probe for the kinds of conflicts of interest and ethical questions that arose at Salisbury.

In a section of the Eastern Shore dominated by the poultry industry, Salisbury State is a 73-year-old former state teachers college trying to raise $13 million to transform itself into a nationally known liberal arts university.

Over a dinner of grilled Chilean sea bass with candles flickering in flowered centerpieces, university President William C. Merwin announced at a party for the school's top donors June 12 that it was 75 percent of the way to its goal.

"There's always a bit of fragrance that clings to the hand that gives the rose," Merwin said as his 120 guests nibbled on chocolate tea cups brimming with tiramisu.

The only sour note of the evening came when a foundation board member took the podium to mention the departure of Robert M. Gearhart Jr., who until June 1997 was the state-paid director of fund raising for the university and the head of its foundation.

Gearhart, a 55-year-old native of Johnstown, Pa., graduated from Syracuse University in 1963 with a music degree and dreams of becoming a bass-trombone player. But he soon found his basso-profundo voice carrying the tune that men in his family's furniture business sang for generations.

"I'm a salesman. That's all I am. It's something that very much runs in my family," said Gearhart.

Befriended local magnates

In 1983, Gearhart started pitching Salisbury State. With the polished manners of a luxury car salesman, he worked the golf courses and restaurants of the Eastern Shore, befriending local poultry magnates.

Before asking for money, he'd carefully research his prospects, rooting through courthouses for inheritance and land records.

Then, in casual conversation, he'd hint that he knew how much they could afford to give.

"It's not like telemarketing," Gearhart said. "It's go sit on the porch with people. It's go fishing with people, go golfing with them.

"It's holiday cards, birthday cards, thank-you cards. I do all of that with a very select group of people. They become your social life."

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