FAMU hire under scrutiny

The wife of a senator convicted of grand theft works at the university's law school.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 22, 2007

In what some students and faculty see as another questionable hire at Florida A&M University, the wife of embattled state Sen. Gary Siplin -- herself tied to controversy involving her husband -- has landed a job at the law school in Orlando.

In 2005, Victoria Siplin's name surfaced in news reports about iffy campaign spending on the part of her husband, an Orlando Democrat who was later found guilty of grand theft.

Of particular interest: her ties to a company called Success Campaign, which received more than $75,000 from Gary Siplin's campaign after she formed it in Delaware two months before the 2004 general election.

Victoria Siplin, 33, also goes by Victoria Pierre and Victoria Pierre-Siplin. She began work at the law school, which is in her husband's senate district, on June 25. The school lists her as assistant to an associate dean.

Victoria Siplin does not mention Success Campaign on the application or resume she submitted to FAMU, even though Delaware records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show she listed herself in 2005 as company president.

FAMU records show the law school advertised twice for the position.

Officials interviewed four of eight applicants the first time, but hired none. The second time, they determined eight of 11 applicants appeared qualified, but interviewed only Siplin. Six of the eight had higher degrees than Siplin, who briefly attended a community college.

Victoria Siplin and Gary Siplin did not return calls and e-mails for comment. Neither did interim law Dean Ruth Witherspoon.

"After speaking with Dean Witherspoon, we believe that she made the best decision for her area," FAMU spokeswoman LaNedra Carroll wrote in an e-mail. "Dean Witherspoon -- as the hiring authority -- selected Ms. Siplin after already having seen several other candidates."

Among other duties, Victoria Siplin serves as a liaison for the associate dean and interprets College of Law rules for students, staff and the public. She makes $35,000 a year.

Gary Siplin was sentenced to three years of probation in November 2006 after a jury found him guilty of using his Senate staff -- and by extension taxpayer money -- to work on his 2004 re-election campaign. His case is on appeal.

Victoria Siplin is not tied to those charges.

But in July 2005, Orlando media reported Gary Siplin sent $75,500 from his 2004 campaign to a Delaware company set up by Victoria Pierre. The Orlando Sentinel reported Success Campaign was established three days before Siplin's campaign sent it the first of 10 payments.

Siplin's campaign said it paid the company for consulting and marketing. And it is legal for candidates to pay family members for campaign work. But according to a WFTV-Ch. 9 report at the time, Gary Siplin wouldn't say who runs the company.

"Ah, right now we're not divulging that information, who is the owner, out of respect," he told a radio station, according to the report. "I'm quite sure one day they'll come forward. But that's where the money went to, and that's their job."

Victoria Siplin filed her application with FAMU in November, on the Monday following her husband's Friday sentencing. The form asks the applicant to "list all employment starting with present or most recent employer."

Siplin lists office manager for her husband's law office May 1999 to present, executive director of a foundation her husband helped set up (2001-2006), and office manager for a modeling agency (1995-2000).

It is not clear if Witherspoon or other FAMU officials were aware of the company, or if they asked Victoria Siplin about her role in the controversy. FAMU officials did not respond to e-mailed questions on those issues.

Orlando news reports have also raised questions about Gary Siplin's use of public money to pay his wife rent for his district office. One report said Siplin was paying Victoria Pierre $2,000 a month - more than any other senator in Central Florida.

The Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office investigated those issues but did not file charges against Victoria Siplin or additional charges against her husband.

Randy Means, who heads the state attorney's investigative unit, said the rent issue was not pursued because it did not violate Senate rules. He said all other information regarding the Siplins was forwarded to other agencies for review. He declined to say which agencies.

The FAMU law school has raised eyebrows with its hires before.

In 2005, the Times reported FAMU had put a wealthy lawyer named Shirley Cunningham into an endowed chair he funded with a $1-million donation -- and then allowed him to earn $100,000 a year despite doing little or no work. Former interim FAMU President Castell Bryant removed Cunningham from the payroll.

More recently, the Times reported on June 6 that FAMU's legal writing director, Victoria Dawson, had posted a working paper online that was riddled with grammatical errors and awkward writing. Students have questioned whether Dawson was hired because of her connections to the former interim dean. She remains in her position.

The law school, which opened in 2002, has never been more under the microscope.

Top students have transferred. Professors are complaining about faculty infighting. And all eyes are on the new dean, Leroy Pernell, who FAMU trustees hired last week. Next month, American Bar Association officials are slated to visit as part of a review to determine whether the school should get full accreditation.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.