Morgan building official resigns

University admits contracts violated Md. financial rules

Sun Follow-up

January 31, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

The director of design and construction management at Morgan State University has resigned amid findings by a legislative auditor that the college violated state regulations in multimillion-dollar deals with a private contractor, officials said yesterday.

In a statement, campus officials acknowledged that university staff had failed to follow Maryland procurement rules. The university has acknowledged adding a $3.1 million allowance into its bid for a 2005 contract and then using $2.6 million of the surplus funds to pay Whiting Turner Contracting for cost overruns on four other campus projects without getting state approval.

They said yesterday that they have created an internal oversight committee to ensure compliance with state laws.

"The administration regrets the difficulty in which the university finds itself and has moved aggressively to implement internal controls that should prevent such mistakes in the future," the statement said.

The Morgan State construction manager, Peeter Kiik, resigned Jan. 21, said university spokesman Clinton Coleman. Coleman said he was not aware of any disciplinary actions taken against other campus administrators.

"The majority of the deficiencies involve the failure of staff to follow state procurement regulations in the letting and awarding of bids of campus construction projects," Morgan officials said in the statement.

The contracting company declined to comment yesterday. "Whiting Turner does not speak to the press," said a woman, who declined to give her name, at the company's Baltimore headquarters.

The legislative audit that found the irregularities came up in a separate Annapolis hearing yesterday, when Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, accused the newspaper of "strategically" timing the article to coincide with a hearing on an unrelated bill she is sponsoring, one designed in part to benefit Morgan.

Coleman said the audit is due to be released by the end of next week and that the university will submit its response to the auditor before then.

Morgan disclosed some of the audit findings in written statements to the Board of Public Works. The board, which must decide whether to approve any college construction contract worth more than $500,000, was scheduled to hear yesterday the college's request to have all the affected contracts - which total more than $16 million - reapproved.

At the board's request, the university withdrew the contracts from consideration until the legislative audit is released.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, has said the governor is concerned about the audit findings and would contemplate taking "additional steps" once he sees the audit.

O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp make up the three-member Board of Public Works.

Kopp has in recent years sharply criticized Morgan for several other instances of "improper transactions" and for circumventing the Board of Public Works' authority.

Conway's legislation would require state higher education officials to reconsider their 2005 decision to allow Towson University to offer a joint master of business administration degree with the University of Baltimore.

The bill - which failed to pass the legislature in the past two years - is founded on the argument that by allowing Towson to duplicate a program already offered nearby Morgan State, Maryland is promoting racial segregation and violating a landmark Supreme Court decision.

Under her legislation, if education officials allow the Towson-UB program to continue, Morgan could go to court to try to shut it down, a prospect that higher education officials say would be unprecedented nationally.

William E. Kirwan, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, and James E. Lyons Sr., O'Malley's higher education secretary, testified in opposition to the bill yesterday. Morgan President Earl S. Richardson spoke in support of it, but he declined to answer any questions after the hearing.

Conway's bill appears to have support in committee. But Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat who heads the House education subcommittee that heard the bill last year, said he did not think Conway's version would pass his chamber.

During her at-times heated testimony on behalf of the bill yesterday, Conway said the audit findings at Morgan have been public knowledge for "six months" and that "strategically it was orchestrated that the article appears ... today. I take offense at it."

In fact, Morgan's declarations to the Board of Public Works became public only in advance of the board's meeting yesterday.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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