Officials seek to reverse ethics decision

Keep Boards of Visitors exempt, regents say

January 15, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

ADELPHI -- University System of Maryland officials asked yesterday that the state ethics commission reverse a decision that puts campus Boards of Visitors under ethics regulations.

"We are adopting a two-pronged approach," said Leronia A. Josey, chairwoman of the advancement committee of the system's Board of Regents. "We passed a resolution calling on the full board to ask the ethics commission to reconsider this and, if that fails, for the legislature to take action."

System officials said they are concerned that the ethics regulations -- which could require Boards of Visitors members to make full financial disclosure and prohibit them from doing business with the school -- might keep people from joining the Boards of Visitors.

"We don't want to lose a Frank Perdue because he sells chicken to the campus," said committee member Edwin S. Crawford. "This is a very slippery slope."

John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the ethics commission, said the state ethics law states that all boards created by law come under its regulations. He said members of boards that are only advisory and without direct authority -- as the regents contend is the case with Boards of Visitors -- are routinely exempted from the financial disclosure requirement.

"I don't want to comment on this particular situation, but we must have 100 or 200 advisory boards in the state -- something that has been going on for decades -- under the ethics regulations and they seem to survive it," O'Donnell said.

The ethics board's decision occurs as many schools in the system are trying to turn their Boards of Visitors -- originally designed as a liaison between the campus and community -- into important fund-raising arms.

"The good news about our Boards of Visitors is that these people have given us substantial amounts of money," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"But these people also advise us and give us the benefit of their expertise out of the goodness of their heart," he said.

"We want them to be excited about working with us, not have to fill out a lot of paperwork. Some people will say they just don't want to be involved if that is the case," said Hrabowski.

"We see this as an intrusion," Josey said of the ethics requirements. "We are asking busy people to serve on these boards and it is something that they just might not have time to do."

O'Donnell said the rise in the profile of the Boards of Visitors is one reason they were judged to be subject to the ethics rules.

"Originally these boards, to the extent they existed at all, were informal," he said. "Over time they become more formal and enmeshed in the system. That change in facts meant they were covered by the regulations."

System officials are basing their protest of the ethics commission ruling in November on an interpretation of the state statute which requires all boards and committees established by law follow the ethics regulations.

John K. Anderson, the chief counsel for educational affairs in the state Attorney General's office, said that since the state law only authorizes the presidents to appoint Boards of Visitors, that law does not actually set them up, meaning they do not come under the ethics requirements.

In a letter to the ethics commission, Anderson noted that the same statute authorizing Boards of Visitors also authorizes "councils of University faculty, staff, students and presidents."

At yesterday's meeting, student regent Andrew D. Miller noted that at his school, Frostburg State University, there are many groups of faculty, students and staff advising the president and deans and other officials.

"Would all these be subject to the ethics law?" he asked.

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