High-powered help mobilized in job search

Influential leaders justify efforts to aid school chief's fiance

`Trailing spouse syndrome'

April 26, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The head of the city's leading business group says he wrote to about half a dozen college presidents asking them to consider the fiance of the city schools' chief for a basketball or baseball coaching job.

Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said he made the request at the suggestion of school board Vice Chairman C. William Struever, who came to him last summer shortly after Carmen V. Russo became chief executive officer of Baltimore schools.

Hutchinson said he wrote to the presidents of the Johns Hopkins University, Coppin State College, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Goucher College and Morgan State University.

The contacts have not succeeded in landing a job for James D. Apicella, although he is an applicant for a head coaching job at Morgan.

Hutchinson's actions are an example of the high-powered efforts made on behalf of Russo and Apicella, who lives in Florida. Last week, influential Baltimore lawyer Richard O. Berndt asked four foundations to contribute $110,000 a year for three years to underwrite a possible job for Apicella in the basketball program at Coppin State College, The Sun reported yesterday.

Russo said she knew of efforts being made to help Apicella, whom she has described as her fiance as well as her "partner of 10 years." But she said she knew nothing of the letter and funding request, which one foundation head termed "highly inappropriate."

Those involved in trying to help Apicella defend the efforts, noting that board members had agreed to try to help when Russo was hired. They described it as common practice in recruiting top executives.

"This happens all the time in the private sector," Hutchinson said. "It's the trailing spouse syndrome. When you are trying to bring a top-level manager to town, you frequently not only have to deal with them to structure a management arrangement, but you also have to deal with the trailing spouse or the trailing companion."

But the president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, said he is "absolutely appalled."

"This is cronyism, plain and simple," said the head of one of the city's most influential clergy groups.

The heart of the issue, Perkins believes, is that community leaders thought it would be acceptable to use foundation money to support a job for Apicella.

"They [the foundations] are supposed to be about things that benefit the community," Perkins said. "This is precisely why the average tax-paying citizen thinks that this system is corrupt and that the powers that be look out for themselves."

The efforts to find Apicella a job apparently haven't succeeded.

"I received some phone calls back," Hutchinson said. Some said they had a full staff that had been in place for some time and others said they didn't see a good fit at the moment, he said.

Hutchinson was one of several people Struever approached on behalf of Apicella, an administrator in Broward County, Fla., schools, where Russo worked before taking the CEO job in Baltimore 10 months ago.

Coppin's president, Calvin W. Burnett, was out of town yesterday and not available for comment. He said through a spokeswoman Tuesday that no job offer was on the table, but that he had met with Apicella. Coppin's head coach and athletic director, however, said he had never met Apicella and knew nothing about an offer.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, confirmed that he had been contacted about finding a job.

"At some point, somebody did call, we did have our coach talk to them, but there was no position so that was as far as it went," he said.

Hrabowski, while not commenting on whether a letter should have been written to the foundations, emphasized that he did not see anything wrong in what Berndt was trying to do.

"Rick is always working to help our city," he said. "It makes sense that we would be trying to find some way to help leaders we want to keep in this community to have regular lives in Baltimore," he said.

Hutchinson said he did not believe asking for the foundations' help was improper. "If you write a letter knowing that it is easy for someone to answer no, then there is nothing inappropriate," he said.

Hutchinson also said he does not believe it's improper to seek this kind of aid from foundations despite the fact that city schools might look to them in the future for program funding. The amount sought for Apicella is tiny in comparison to the millions of dollars the foundations dole out annually.

Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr., one of those written to by Berndt, also believes that there is nothing unusual about the request.

But he said his foundation would not give money to Coppin to fund the position because Abell does not give grants to colleges and universities.

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