Job sought for schools chief's friend

Lawyer's letter asks foundations to give $330,000 over 3 years

April 25, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

A high-powered lobbying effort is under way to persuade Baltimore foundations to underwrite a possible job in the basketball program at Coppin State College for the boyfriend of city schools chief Carmen V. Russo.

In a letter sent last week, influential lawyer Richard O. Berndt asked four foundations to contribute $110,000 a year for three years on behalf of James D. Apicella, Russo's boyfriend in Florida.

The letter said Russo travels to Florida "almost every weekend" and that the travel "reduces the time she can spend in Baltimore City on school matters."

FOR THE RECORD - The name of the president of Coppin State College, Calvin W. Burnett, was incorrectly spelled in a Page 1A article yesterday about efforts to find a job for the fiance of the chief of Baltimore public schools. The Sun regrets the error.

"If a group of Baltimore Foundations would come together to donate $110,000 to Coppin for each of three years, Jim would move to Baltimore and Carmen's life would be normalized here, giving her more time to deal with school system matters, as well as giving her more time to become a complete resident of Baltimore," the letter states.

The president of one of the foundations called the request "highly inappropriate."

Russo said it was "inappropriate" for Berndt to suggest that travel has gotten in the way of her job.

Russo said she had not known of the letter's existence but confirmed that "some guys are trying to help create the funding for a position for [Jim], given his credentials."

Last night, she produced calendar records showing she had worked most of the past several weekends on city school business. She offered to provide additional records for past months.

It was not clear last night whether any of the foundations would provide funding or that the purported Coppin job offer was solid. Coppin officials disputed Berndt's characterization of their discussions concerning Apicella.

The letter was sent to Timothy Armbruster, president of the Morris Goldseker Foundation; Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation; Walter D. Pinkard Jr., chairman of the board of the Baltimore Community Foundation and vice president of the France-Merrick Foundation; and Bernard Siegel, president of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

Russo, 65, said she visits Apicella, 59, a wellness coordinator for the Broward County school system who has coached basketball in Puerto Rico, Mexico and overseas, about once a month. She leaves after work Friday or Saturday morning and returns Sunday, she said.

"I give 100 percent of my energy to Baltimore City, and nothing I do in my personal life diminishes [that]," said Russo, whose husband of 32 years died in 1990. "But it would be very nice to have my partner of 10 years with me, especially since he has such high qualifications."

Berndt, a close friend and adviser to Mayor Martin O'Malley and one of his chief fund-raisers, did not return calls yesterday seeking comment.

The mayor said he knew nothing about Berndt's letter but defended its intent.

"I think everyone appreciates the good job that Carmen is doing, and I think he just saw that there was a need for some leadership on this issue, which albeit might be a small one, but affects her ability to be here all the time and do a very difficult job," he said.

The April 17 letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, was written on letterhead of Berndt's law firm and marked "Personal and Confidential." In it, Berndt said he was writing to support school board Vice Chairman C. William Struever's efforts to find Apicella a job.

"Bill Struever is going to call on each of you to ask for support in doing this. ... Please be open to hearing Bill's arguments. It may appear an unusual request, but the benefits to the City's kids will be significant," the letter said.

Struever said yesterday that he asked "a while ago" for Berndt's help, but has had no discussions with anyone at Coppin.

"It is true that I, along with other members of the board, [am] trying to find a good place for Jim in Baltimore and have been looking for the right fit with his skills, and coaching is one of the ideas that have been explored," he said.

Struever said he and board Chairman J. Tyson Tildon have been making inquiries on Apicella's behalf - which he said was not unusual - because the school board agreed to help when Russo was hired last summer. Struever said he has also provided Apicella's resume to Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Berndt's letter said several people have made efforts to find a job for Apicella. He said Coppin's president, Cal Burnette, arranged for Apicella to meet with the college's basketball coach, Ron "Fang" Mitchell, and that Mitchell "would be pleased to have Jim in as part of Coppin's program."

According to the letter, Burnette said a job for Apicella would cost $110,000 a year but that Coppin did not have the funding.

"I recognize that supporting college basketball programs is not central to your Foundation's missions," it said, "but the end result of bringing Jim Apicella to Baltimore will be to improve both Coppin and the ability of Carmen to give more to Baltimore."

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