Morgan regents often 'not here'

Sun exclusive

State to see whether absences violate law

July 13, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Some of the most prominent members of Morgan State University's Board of Regents have routinely missed meetings since at least 2000, a pattern of absenteeism that critics say robs the Baltimore school of key oversight at a time when it is under criminal investigation by the Maryland attorney general for its fiscal practices.

Board members U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, former congressman Kweisi Mfume and prominent science education advocate Shirley M. Malcom have missed dozens of meetings in recent years, according to minutes from the board meetings that The Sun obtained through a public information request. Maryland law requires members of state boards and commissions to attend at least 50 percent of meetings within any 12-month period - or else "be considered to have resigned."

In response to questions about the absences, Gov. Martin O'Malley has asked appointments secretary Jeanne D. Hitchcock to look into the matter, including whether any of the absences constitute a violation of the state's law, said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

"There's no question that Morgan State University benefits by having people like Congressman Cummings and Kweisi Mfume serve on their board," Abbruzzese said. "But the governor does expect that members will participate fully in the process."

A legislative audit published in February found that Morgan State officials padded construction contracts and evaded oversight by the state Board of Public Works, among other issues. University officials acknowledged mistakes but said they had taken steps to prevent them in the future. Still, Annapolis lawmakers punished the school by withholding millions in state construction funds until it overhauls procurement processes.

Service on public university boards of regents, which are unpaid positions in Maryland, has long been considered one of the most prestigious honors bestowed by the governor. But regents also have a responsibility to oversee millions in state funding.

"Board positions, even at nonprofit and government entities, no longer can be seen as sinecures or tributes or ceremonial," said Jeffrey A Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management who focuses on leadership and governance issues. "Mismanagement in the public sector is no less an issue" than in the corporate world, he said.

Like the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents, Morgan's 15-member governing board is appointed by the governor and charged with making major academic and financial policy decisions and overseeing the administration. The board meets at least four times a year, and most members, who are appointed to a six-year term, are also assigned to one of two committees: Finance and Facilities or Academic and Student Affairs.

In addition to missing about one-third of board meetings since 2000, Mfume, the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has also missed the past eight meetings of the regents' finance committee, according to board minutes obtained under Maryland's Public Information Act. William R Roberts, a regent and president of Verizon Maryland, has missed seven of the past eight finance committee meetings, in addition to more than a third of full-board meetings since he was appointed in 2001. Committee meetings are not subject to the state's 50-percent attendance law, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.

Mfume, currently a surrogate speaker for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, said his absences were because of scheduling conflicts. "I participate very vigorously at meetings that I attend," he said.

The seven-member finance committee oversees the business and financial policies of the university, including the procurement practices being investigated by the attorney general's criminal division. In February, the Facilities and Finance Committee met and discussed the audit. Mfume was absent.

Del. Norman H. Conway, chairman of a House of Delegates committee that was sharply critical of the Morgan regents' leadership during this year's legislative session, said he thinks the General Assembly should address the regents' attendance problems next year.

"You have to demonstrate your leadership and commitment by your attendance, and I think there may very well be a need to reiterate the significance of the roles that they play," said Conway, a Wicomico County Democrat whose committee oversees Morgan's budget.

Other Morgan regents with spotty attendance include retired Gen. Johnnie E. Wilson, who has missed nearly half of meetings held since 2000. Malcom has missed 17 of the past 34 board meetings.

In December 2007, Dallas R. Evans, chairman of Morgan's Board of Regents, asked the governor to excuse excessive absences by Malcom. Under state law, the governor may waive excessive absences, and in this case he did, Abbruzzese said.

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