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41 fired as FAMU scandal expands

As it makes deep cuts to sports programs, FAMU says an audit reveals some people on the payroll who did little or no real work.

By DAVID KARP
Published July 1, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - Florida A&M University said Thursday it has fired 41 employees after an internal audit revealed some of them collected a paycheck week after week even though it appears they did no work.

The cost to the university: $1.1-million in annual salaries.

Some did not show up for work. Others left early to go to other jobs off campus. And some got paychecks from the historically black school even though they lived in a different state, according to the audit.

The university also is asking authorities, including the state attorney, to investigate whether nearly another 100 employees who have received a combined $4.7-million in annual salaries may have done the same thing.

The initial findings of the university's payroll audit released Thursday showed how widespread the school's financial mismanagement was:

The audit found "ghost employees" - people on the payroll who did little real work - in departments across the university, both at the main Tallahassee campus and branch offices. It's not clear how long this went on.

"It's really all over," said vice president of human resource Janie Greenleaf.

FAMU will review yet another 286 employees who got more than one paycheck, although some of it may have been for legitimate work. The university has about 4,000 employees.

Authorities have not filed any criminal charges as a result of the payroll audit.

The findings of the audit particularly stung Thursday as the school also approved budget cuts.

The university eliminated four sports, axed travel money for the famed FAMU Marching 100 band, reduced athletic scholarships by $1.2-million, or 42 percent, and cut money for the remaining sports by 16 percent.

It also decided to tell the NCAA it would put its sports programs on probation for three years, among other self-imposed sanctions. FAMU still will play the University of South Florida football game in Tampa on Sept. 10.

And the university agreed to repay the National Science Foundation about $1.5-million because it could not show the agency how it spent its grant money. Agency officials were on campus Thursday monitoring how officials are correcting the problems.

FAMU interim president Castell Bryant said the university had made huge gains to fix how researchers account for federal grant money. The school passed new policies Thursday that require researchers to declare financial conflicts of interest, for example.

Even so, an executive report about the changes warned trustees that the school's corrective action plan "is at risk to not be accepted as fully implemented." Officials were still trying to complete a review of 750 research grants never closed.

"I believe the kinds of things we are doing represent a new day for FAMU," trustees chairwoman Challis Lowe said. "The Legislature should be encouraged we are taking responsibility for the millions of dollars the state gives us."

A line of students and alumni attended Thursday's meeting and predicted FAMU would overcome this crisis.

On Thursday, university officials would not identify the fired employees or those being investigated.

At least 20 of the fired employees worked at FAMU's Institute for Urban Policy and Commerce, created by the Legislature to study and work on urban redevelopment issues.

Bryant fired all the employees of the institute in April, but refused publicly to say why. Later, she said the firings were related to payroll problems.

The Florida Department of Financial Services launched a criminal investigation of the institute earlier this year, officials said.

Even so, FAMU trustee Barney Bishop questioned at a meeting Thursday whether the employees were treated fairly. He said many were not told why they were fired.

Citing the school's motto, "Excellence with Caring," Bishop said the president had not acted with enough sensitivity. "People's lives are being impacted," he said.

None of the other board members agreed - or even wanted to discuss the details.

"I have done my due diligence," Bryant said, but declined to elaborate.

In an interview Thursday night, the executive director of the Institute for Urban Policy and Commerce denied all the allegations and offered to show the St. Petersburg Times evidence of her staff's work. Patricia Walker-McGill said she could produce witnesses who saw employees working on grant-writing and other projects.

"There was not one employee who was a "ghost employee,"' she said. "They have made grave errors."

She and Eric Jordan, the institute's associate director, filed a lawsuit on May 31 in state court in Leon County alleging breach of contract over their firings, court records show. She said she would also pursue a lawsuit for defamation of character.

Rita Maupin, director of libraries for Calhoun County, ran an adult literacy program with a state education grant through the institute. She contacted the Times Thursday night.

"I talked to them I don't know how many times a day," Maupin said of FAMU institute staff.

Bonnie Segree, director of the Franklin County literacy program, said she gave investigators records of the students she helped earn GEDs through an institute grant. She said she was paid no more than $50,000 a year for her part-time work for FAMU before she was fired.

"We are not just a bunch of people drawing a check," she said. "We do the services we are required to do."

The investigation started three months ago when FAMU asked every employee to appear in person to pick up their paycheck. Hundreds waited in line in the rain as police officers watched.

About two months later, Bryant put FAMU Law School dean Percy Luney Jr. on paid leave after discovering that a donor gave $1-million to the law school to create an endowed chair and was then paid $100,000 a year to fill it.

The university found the donor did little work to earn his salary, which he disputes. Luney also says he did nothing wrong.

Paul Stepusin, an accountant from KPMG, told trustees that the payroll audit was not usual. He said its results did not reflect on thousands of employees who work long hours every day.

"There are a lot of hard-working FAMU employees who want accountability," he said.

--David Karp can be reached toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8430, or karp@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 1, 2005, 01:25:06]


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