Speed urged in Morgan State probe

Lawmaker wants financial investigation resolved before budget discussions start

December 10, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

A lawmaker who oversees state agency audits said yesterday that he would ask the attorney general to speed up a nearly yearlong criminal investigation into financial mismanagement at Morgan State University so that the General Assembly can determine whether the public college had corrected its problems.

At a hearing in Annapolis, Morgan President Earl S. Richardson told legislators that the university has "moved very, very diligently" to resolve internal problems uncovered in a February audit. The findings prompted the General Assembly to withhold millions of dollars in funding to the historically black Northeast Baltimore school until it could document reform.

That report, prepared by an outside consultant, will be released in a few weeks, said Richardson, who plans to retire at the end of next year after a quarter-century as the university's president. But members of a legislative audit committee pressed the president and other Morgan officials yesterday to explain whether the school had recovered improperly spent money, such as an alleged $825,000 overpayment to Baltimore-based Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.

Richardson said he could not discuss specifics until the attorney general completes a criminal investigation prompted by the audit. "I'm not responding ... until the attorney general advises us," Richardson said after repeated questions by Del. Charles E. Barkley, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Barkley praised Morgan for making "great strides," but said lawmakers needed to hear from criminal investigators "before we start budget discussions" next month.

Del. Steven J. DeBoy Sr., a Baltimore County Democrat and a committee co-chairman, said, "We will send a letter [to the attorney general's office] and see if they can speed it up."

The Office of the Attorney General "does not confirm, deny or comment on ongoing investigations," said Shanetta Paskel, a spokeswoman.

During a routine fiscal audit last year, investigators found that Morgan State officials padded a construction contract by $3.1 million and then used those funds to pay the same contractor, Whiting-Turner, for different work without getting state approval. The auditors referred their findings, which led to contentious hearings during this year's Assembly session, to the attorney general's criminal division.

Yesterday, Richardson blamed much of the problems on the "poor judgment" of Peeter Kiik, Morgan's former director of design and construction management. Kiik has been replaced by Kim McCalla, a construction manager who worked on major projects for the Maryland Stadium Authority, Richardson said.

The university president also said he has established a seven-member Capital Construction Review Committee to oversee campus projects and ensure their compliance with state law.

State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who sat in the audience during yesterday's hearing, said she was "perturbed" at the persistent interrogation of Richardson by some committee members. One of Morgan's staunchest defenders in the legislature, Conway said she, too, would call Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler to "see if we can get answers" about the criminal investigation "prior to the start of session."

Conway said she was concerned that Morgan would be treated harshly by lawmakers who oversee the university's budget if the shadow of a criminal inquiry continued to hang over the college. "Hopefully, once we get answers, they'll be treating Morgan much better," Conway said of her fellow legislators.

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