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FAMU 'ghost professor' under scrutiny

The case involves a lawyer who endowed a chair, then was appointed to it but did no work.

By RON MATUS
Published April 6, 2007


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The state Attorney General's Office is reviewing a 23-month-old case involving an endowed chair and a "ghost employee" at the Florida A&M University law school.

Nearly two years ago, interim FAMU president Castell Bryant fired a high-powered Kentucky lawyer, Shirley Cunningham Jr., after Bryant said she found no evidence that he had done any work as an endowed chair at the law school.

Cunningham had given FAMU $1-million for the chair and then, in a highly unusual arrangement, was appointed to the chair and given a $100,000-a-year salary.

Two months ago, the state Department of Financial Services concluded Bryant was right, and recommended FAMU take steps to recover nearly $200,000 for "salary and benefits not earned."

FAMU trustees referred the matter to the Attorney General's Office, which began a review last week.

Officials there are "in the process of gathering the relevant documents and conducting the legal research necessary for the preparation of any pleadings," FAMU general counsel Elizabeth McBride told the St. Petersburg Times in an e-mail. "After this is completed, they will be conferencing with the University as to the appropriate actions to take."

A lawsuit is one of several possible courses of action, "but at this point it really is too early to speculate," said attorney general spokeswoman Sandi Copes.

The Cunningham affair has been all but forgotten amid the latest wave of FAMU troubles, but at the time it raised red flags about a lack of financial controls; put Bryant's hard-charging leadership style under scrutiny; and led to questions about how historically deep FAMU's woes go.

Then-law school dean Percy Luney Jr., whom Bryant put on leave just days after firing Cunningham, mounted a vigorous defense by arguing that two of FAMU's former presidents - Frederick Humphries and Fred Gainous - made key decisions about Cunningham's appointment.

Cunningham's job required no teaching or research. Instead, FAMU documents showed, 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.

The Department of Financial Services concluded he didn't even do that.

Beyond occasional telephone conversations between Cunningham and Luney, "we found no evidence of work activity or work products by Cunningham to benefit FAMU," agency inspectors wrote. "The state of Florida and FAMU received little, if any, benefit through Cunningham's employment."

The inspectors also concluded that evidence of criminal activity "at this point is inconclusive."

Luney fought Bryant's decision to dismiss him, but an administrative law judge recommended in September that the FAMU board of trustees fire him and strip him of tenure. It did so a week later.

Cunningham, meanwhile, is the target of a grand jury investigation in Kentucky stemming from accusations he defrauded clients in a $200-million settlement involving the diet-drug fen-phen. He has been temporarily suspended from practicing law.

Cunningham declined to talk to Florida financial investigators about the chair affair. Neither he nor his attorney could be reached for comment this week.

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 5, 2007, 23:15:57]


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