State and NAACP officials decry Morgan investigation of Rawlings

Irate regents, lawmakers to demand explanations

December 06, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

As a key state lawmaker demanded answers from Morgan State University, the president of the NAACP decried yesterday the college's compilation of a secret dossier on the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings while he was battling cancer.

NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume, a Morgan graduate and member of its Board of Regents, said he was "sickened" by revelations that university officials had assembled a lengthy report on Rawlings, the powerful Baltimore Democrat and frequent Morgan critic who died Nov. 14.

Mfume said he called the chairman of Morgan's board, Dallas R. Evans, yesterday and asked him to hold an emergency meeting as soon as possible.

"I'm sickened by the thought that anyone - whether they were directed to or not - would seek to gather information to defame or discredit or denigrate [Rawlings'] legacy while he battled to hold on for dear life," said Mfume. "I'm absolutely angered and appalled ... and I won't rest until I get answers."

Several legislators also expressed outrage. The chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees funding for higher education, Patrick J. Hogan, said he was writing to Morgan's board demanding that it launch an investigation of the Rawlings project.

Morgan regents interviewed by The Sun have said they knew nothing of the dossier.

Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he would discuss with his colleagues on the Budget and Taxation Committee the possibility of holding a hearing on the matter before the legislative session begins in January.

"I'm very disturbed about the situation," Hogan said. "What concerns me most is that a state institution such as Morgan doing something like [this] sends a chilling message to those who would question their activities.

"It really taints the whole process if a legislator has to have concern that he is going to be investigated by an institution to try to find something to use against him."

The Sun reported yesterday that Morgan's general counsel, at the direction of university President Earl S. Richardson, spent much of the late winter and spring compiling a dossier about Rawlings to use in the school's continuing clashes with the influential House Appropriations Committee chairman.

The research included scrutinizing Rawlings' financial disclosure forms and the tax records of a civil rights organization with which he was associated.

The project took place even as Rawlings' failing health caused him to miss legislative hearings.

Morgan officials deny they were conducting an investigation of Rawlings, saying they were only trying to organize a full response to Rawlings' vocal criticisms of the historically black university. They say that out of respect for him, they don't want to rehash those criticisms now or their response to them.

Informed through a Morgan spokesman of legislators' reactions yesterday, Richardson again declined to comment.

Rawlings was a Morgan graduate and helped win funding for the campus in Northeast Baltimore, where a dormitory is named for him.

But he frequently questioned the university's management, its performance and its leaders' claims that Morgan received unfair treatment because it was a minority institution.

Rawlings and Richardson had clashed on several occasions in recent years, including in a bitter fight last year over funding for Morgan's new library. With Richardson's approval, hundreds of Morgan students descended on Annapolis by bus to confront Rawlings on the issue.

Lawmakers said yesterday that while they knew of the disputes, they were startled that Morgan officials would have been compiling a lengthy report on Rawlings while he was ailing.

"You can have your differences and come back and present your side of it," said Del. Norman H. Conway, Rawlings' successor as Appropriations Committee chairman. Creating a dossier, the Wicomico County Democrat said, "is the wrong tactic, and it's way out of line."

He predicted that Morgan officials will face a chilly reception when they come before his panel seeking funding.

"There will be some very, very stringent questioning," Conway said.

Del. James E. Proctor Jr., the Prince George's Democrat who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on education funding, said he would talk with Hogan about holding a hearing.

"I don't know of anybody on my committee that is not going to feel this is outrageous," Proctor said. Morgan officials "were fishing. They must have been looking for something, to do something like that."

Several lawmakers said they feared the issue would distract from other legislative business and give new life to the ill will that existed between Rawlings and Morgan officials.

"I wish everyone would just settle down and go about the issue of educating students at Morgan State," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and Rawlings protegee. "It's sad. I don't like anything to come to this."

She said Rawlings had told her that he knew of the dossier but had decided not to make an outcry about it. "If he wanted to expose them he could have, but he thought it would die down," she said.

Hogan predicted that the disclosure of Morgan's effort could have an impact on the school's attempt to win increased funding and greater independence.

Morgan had been planning to introduce a bill this session that would grant it greater power to make purchases and sign contracts without state approval - a move Rawlings had long resisted.

Hogan called it "ironic" that Morgan might have assembled its report on Rawlings partly to help it prevail over him in its push for independence.

"This flies in the face of" Morgan's wish for more authority, Hogan said. "I see something like this and I want to limit their autonomy."

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