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Blame flies in FAMU scandal

The suspended law school dean faults two former presidents for a controversial chair.

Published June 14, 2005

A messy dispute over an endowed chair at Florida A&M University has devolved into full-blown finger pointing.

The suspended law school dean is blaming former FAMU presidents.

The presidents say it's not their fault.

Even the interim president is coming under fire.

At the center of the latest FAMU scandal is Kentucky lawyer Shirley Cunningham Jr., who donated $1-million for an endowed chair, then was appointed to the chair, complete with a $100,000-a-year salary.

Interim FAMU President Castell Bryant put law school dean Percy Luney Jr. on leave last week, days after the St. Petersburg Times revealed the unusual arrangement and her decision to fire Cunningham. Bryant did not offer much explanation, saying only that her decision on Luney involved a university payroll audit.

Luney has since mounted a vigorous defense.

His take: FAMU's past presidents told him to do it.

In a letter to FAMU's Board of Trustees, Luney said former FAMU presidents Frederick Humphries and Fred Gainous made crucial decisions regarding Cunningham's appointment.

"My attempts to facilitate a different donor relationship were overruled," he wrote.

Contrary to custom for other endowed chairs, Cunningham's position required no teaching or research. Instead, according to FAMU documents, he and Luney agreed on a half-dozen projects, including developing a bar exam prep program, raising funds for scholarships and working toward establishment of an agricultural law center.

Cunningham's contract began in August 2003.

In October 2001, Luney said Humphries forwarded him a letter from Cunningham's accountant that confirmed the lawyer's pledge of $1-million and his anticipation of a three-year contract.

Two weeks later, Luney wrote back. The law school's greatest need is for scholarships, he said, and an endowed chair is "somewhat premature" for a fledgling law school.

Then, according to Luney, Humphries called.

The president said "the gift would be in the form of an endowed chair and that I should discontinue further conversation regarding the form of the gift," Luney wrote.

Later, Humphries' successor, Gainous, supported Cunningham's wish not to teach and not be at the school on a daily basis, Luney wrote.

In Monday's Orlando Sentinel , the former presidents disputed Luney's account.

"There was no quid pro quo," Humphries said.

The chair details were "completed prior to my employment," Gainous said.

Whether Cunningham did any work remains in dispute.

Bryant, the interim president, said he didn't. Luney declined to comment.

His lawyer, Tony Suarez, said Monday that Luney and Cunningham had some discussions about the chair's agreed-upon projects, but it's not clear how far Cunningham had progressed. Suarez said as far as he knows, Cunningham did not complete an annual report summing up his activities as chair, as required by FAMU policy.

On Monday, FAMU officials could not locate any such report.

In a written statement, Cunningham said "the work is being delivered in various states or is in various stages of development."

The statement also said it was Humphries who suggested Cunningham fill the chair and help the law school with fundraising and program development.

Reached by phone Monday, Cunningham declined to offer details.

Both he and Luney have taken aim at Bryant.

Suarez said Bryant never talked to Luney about the disputed chair. If she had simply told him the law school needed a fresh start, he would have quietly resigned, he said.

Instead, Suarez said, she started "an open food fight which really wasn't necessary."

Rep. David Mealor, R-Lake Mary, also questioned Bryant's decision.

"She's been very tenacious" in dealing with FAMU's recent troubles, said Mealor, a Luney supporter who heads the House Colleges and Universities Committee. But in this case, "maybe it would have been good to be more deliberative."

Attempts to reach Bryant through a FAMU spokeswoman were unsuccessful Monday.

Meanwhile, her tenure isn't getting any easier.

On Friday, she put another administrator, a financial officer, on leave, this time after news reports revealed he and three others had been indicted for creating fictitious loans at a credit union and transferring money to their personal accounts.

--Ron Matus can be reached at 727 576-6765 or Times researcher Dierdre Morrow contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 14, 2005, 06:32:07]

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