State senator withdraws from university amid claims that ex-aide did schoolwork

State Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Dorchester County Republican who sits on a committee that oversees education issues, has withdrawn from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore amid allegations from a former legislative aide who claims to have written and submitted academic papers on Colburn's behalf.

The aide, Gregory Dukes, said he wrote five papers for Colburn last year for two sociology courses Colburn was taking toward a bachelor's degree.

Dukes, 36, said he felt obligated to complete the papers to keep his job. He said he resigned from his legislative position in December after being ordered to perform those duties and a variety of personal tasks for Colburn, including waiting at his home for repair workers and coordinating the sale of baseball tickets.

"If he receives any success because of what I did, I would feel bad about that," Dukes said of his former employer.

Colburn, 55, flatly rejects the allegations, which he said stemmed from a personnel dispute. He said he wrote the papers longhand and gave them to Dukes to type, as he does not know how to type or use computers. He abandoned his coursework, he said, because of the demands of his legislative activities.

"It's his word versus my word," he said. "We're talking about a disgruntled employee."

Colburn said he paid Dukes for the typing and assumed the aide was doing the work on his own time, not state time.

Dukes said he charged Colburn $20 an hour for the academic work, receiving $300 for one of the two courses but nothing for the other. He said the payment was to create the papers, not transcribe them. Dukes said he asked for the fee in the hope that Colburn would be dissuaded from having someone else do his work.

The allegations first came to light in January when Dukes wrote to Anna Vaughn-Cooke, vice president for academic affairs at UMES, outlining what he said was his participation in Colburn's coursework and apologizing for his role. He said he wanted the letter to be considered a formal complaint.

Ronnie Holden, vice president for administrative affairs at UMES, confirmed yesterday that Colburn is no longer enrolled and said the withdrawal came after Dukes submitted the complaint. But Holden and other university officials would not comment on any inquiry that might have been started, noting student confidentiality laws.

Dukes provided copies of draft papers, notes, e-mails and faxes to the university and later to The Sun to support his allegations.

Among them is a handwritten note from Colburn to his aide describing how a UMES sociology professor rejected as too advanced a term paper topic for a class on American minority groups that Dukes says he - not Colburn - suggested.

"Gregory - I talked to Dr. Alston [Assistant Professor David Alston] about a term paper comparing the plight of Native American (Indians) on reservations in America vs. that of Jews in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Dr. Alston states that he felt such a paper would be too complex. ... He stated to just read this chapter and try to read and quote from other authors," the note said. It is signed, "Thanks, Rick."

Colburn said his handwritten directions to Dukes were not orders, but simply notes from the class and discussions that he was passing on. The senator gave a similar explanation for all the notes that Dukes kept.

Elected to the House of Delegates in 1983, Colburn is chairman of the Eastern Shore Senate delegation and is not regarded as a particularly powerful figure in Annapolis. He is a member of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which, in part, considers bills on higher education policy.

Colburn received an associate's degree from Chesapeake College, a community college, in 1982, according to the registrar's office there. He is town manager in Federalsburg, a 2,600-resident Dorchester County community. He said he has long desired a bachelor's degree for personal enrichment.

"I don't know whether I'll live long enough" to receive one, he said last week. "I had a bout of prostate cancer."

Dukes, an emergency room nurse by training, began as a campaign volunteer for Colburn in 2003 and went on the legislature's payroll in February 2004. As Colburn's chief of staff, he handled constituent complaints, wrote letters and researched legislation.

Dukes said Colburn also asked him to do personal tasks such as help arrange the resale of the senator's Orioles season tickets and help move furniture in his home.

Dukes said he worked on two UMES academic courses for Colburn. One was a sociology internship based on Colburn's experience as a Republican congressional candidate from Maryland's 1st District in 2004, supervised by Professor Stanley DeViney. Colburn was defeated in the primary by incumbent Wayne T. Gilchrest. The second was the course on minority groups taught by Alston.

During the internship, Colburn was to receive credit for keeping a log of his campaign activities and writing a paper after reading two classic political science texts and comparing his experiences to them.

Dukes said Colburn had him read the books - Robert Dahl's Who Governs? and William Domhoff's Who Really Rules? - and write a paper. He said Colburn told him to give the paper to retired Chesapeake College professor Conway Gregory, a friend of Colburn's who the aide said was serving as an informal academic adviser for the senator.

Gregory rewrote the paper, said Dukes. The aide said Colburn, without looking at it, told him to submit the revised version. "He said, 'OK, send it to the school.' He wouldn't touch it," Dukes said. "I lost all interest in his school endeavors at that point."

Colburn and Gregory, the retired professor, appear to have long-standing connections. Gregory's resume shows that he worked for years as a grants writer in Federalsburg and was a legislative aide to the senator.

A "plan of action" for Colburn's bachelor's degree kept by the aide shows that of 11 UMES classes the senator proposed taking in 2003 and 2004, Gregory was to be the instructor for seven. But Gregory has no relationship with UMES. There is no indication that the university approved the plan.

In an interview, Gregory said that plans that he serve as Colburn's primary instructor were "just a suggestion." Gregory said he recalled making suggestions on Colburn's sociology paper but denied that he rewrote it. "That's all I did was edit it," he said. "I do not recall writing a paper."

But Colburn could not explain why there were two versions of the sociology paper. Asked to name the city that was the subject of the two books - New Haven, Conn. - the senator could not. He also could not name the professor overseeing the course, Stanley DeViney.

DeViney would not comment for this article, saying federal laws prohibited him from speaking about a student's work. Alston, the second professor, could not be reached for comment.

Colburn said Dukes was disgruntled because the aide wanted to work out of Annapolis instead of Cambridge, but that Colburn refused. He said that after Dukes resigned, the aide improperly copied and removed files from the state-issued computer. The senator contacted the state attorney general's office to get them back; after that, Dukes got an attorney.

Assistant Attorney General Robert Zarnoch, who advises the General Assembly, acknowledged that he got involved in the matter. "Our job at some point was to make sure the files got back," Zarnoch said. Dukes provided copies earlier this year.

Even if Dukes' allegations are true and he wrote papers for Colburn on state time, that probably does not constitute a legal violation, Zarnoch said, because lawmakers have wide latitude in the tasks they give their employees.