FAMU case may tie in to suit

Claims of religious bias intersect with fraud charges in some grants.

By Ron Matus, Times Staff Writer
Published February 23, 2008

In a surprise twist, the indictment of a former Florida A&M University official on federal theft and fraud charges this week is directly tied to the legal case of a woman who claims the state Department of Education discriminated against her because she's an evangelical Christian.

Many observers were skeptical this summer when Karen W. "Kay" Stripling of Marianna filed suit against the department, claiming officials there erroneously told investigators she mishandled grant money obtained by her faith-based company, Florida Read & Lead. They continued to be skeptical when Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, filed a $2.7-million claims bill on her behalf.

But Thursday, Stripling's case seemed to gain credibility when the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tallahassee announced a federal grand jury had indicted Patricia Walker McGill, former director of FAMU's Institute on Urban Policy and Commerce, on 21 counts of theft, fraud and conspiracy.

Through the institute, McGill helped Florida counties and private organizations, including Stripling's company, obtain and implement education grants. The indictment lists four occasions in which McGill obtained a total of $48,425 after allegedly falsely representing she had done work for Read & Lead.

People have said Stripling is crazy, said Russ Cyphers, a former federal investigator who is Posey's chief aide. "Either the FBI and the Justice Department is as crazy as she is, or there's something to this."

McGill's attorney, though, said it is unclear what role Stripling and others played in the transactions.

"Somebody on the other end of this had to be involved," said Gary Printy, who also represents McGill in a civil dispute stemming from her firing in 2005 by then-interim FAMU president Castell Bryant. He said McGill would defend the case "all the way."

Stripling declined comment. Her lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Ken Sukhia, did not return a call for comment.

According to the indictment, McGill allegedly stole or misused grant money and allegedly required some grant recipients to kick back money and disguise it as consulting fees. In a number of cases, McGill allegedly causedchecks to be issued to people and purposes that had nothing to with the grants, including a relative of McGill's, another FAMU employee, a religious organization and a holiday party.

McGill faces up to 350 years in prison and $5.25-million in fines.

Stripling's suit, filed in June, says Education Department statements led investigators to threaten her with a federal indictment and the possibility of fines and prison time, but investigators backed off after concluding the department was wrong. The suit alleges some department staffers resented the involvement of faith-based companies in educational activities.

Cyphers said Posey withdrew Stripling's claims bill last week because "we still had no ... court-provided evidence" for substantiation. Her case is pending in Leon County circuit court.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.