At Bowie State, a tale of checks and balances Hired to fix fiscal ills, officer had own woes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When auditors uncovered problems at the nonprofit foundation that raises money for Bowie State University, the school president turned to an unlikely candidate for a cleanup: an administrator whose own financial history is marked by a trail of bounced checks, loan defaults and overdue taxes.

Russell A. Davis, who in January was asked to straighten out the finances of the Bowie State University Foundation, was at the time having money taken from his wages to repay $3,873 that he improperly took from another nonprofit organization he once headed.

Moreover, Bowie State President Nathanael Pollard Jr., who tapped Davis for the foundation job, had been told four years earlier by an official of the Maryland Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development that Davis had "embezzled" the money from the group and would not return it, according to court files.

Pollard says he does not recall receiving the letter about Davis, who is vice president of student affairs at the 5,200-student university in Prince George's County. Pollard, who has raised Davis' salary from $53,900 in 1994 to $82,500 in 1998, says he is confident that Davis can untangle the finances of the foundation, which raises money for such projects as scholarships and research.

Davis attributes his financial difficulties, which stretch back to 1989,to an unrelated series of setbacks. He says the problems have no relationship to his ability to run the foundation's finances.

According to court records:

The counseling association, which holds seminars on cultural diversity, gets a portion of Davis' pay as a result of a legal judgment. A judge ordered him to repay money taken from the group's savings account while he served as its president in 1992-1993.

Davis has failed to pay federal taxes; has been sued six times for a total of $43,298 in bad debts since 1990; has defaulted on more than $16,000 in student loans; has had his university wages garnished five times; and has written bad checks for such items as state vehicle taxes, a bank withdrawal and $3,140 in rent.

Baltimore district courts have an active warrant for Davis' arrest in connection with a charge that he failed to return a rental car in 1991.

The problems have come to light at a time when Davis is responsible for the finances of a major fund-raising campaign designed to continue Bowie's transformation from a commuter school for teachers into a more selective university featuring high-technology education.

Last month, the foundation held a fund-raising gala attended by Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis at Washington's Marriott hotel. There, Pollard announced that Bowie State was upping its goal from $7 million to $10 million by the year 2002.

Money from the campaign will go to the foundation, which supports Bowie State through donations and government grants.

Defends actions

Davis, 39, a former bank teller from Wilmington, Del., strongly defends his actions. He says he has paid off almost all his personal debts and is working to get the foundation's books in order.

"We are in the process of rebuilding the foundation from the ground up," said Davis, who holds a doctoral degree in education and has worked at Bowie State for eight years, rising from director of the counseling center. "There needed to be better checks and balances. And now those have been put in place."

Pollard declined to comment on his recommendation to the foundation's board that Davis become its new interim executive director, adding to his responsibilities at the university. Pollard said an auditor's report released last week after a Freedom of Information Act request has motivated the foundation to improve its accounting and management.

"I have confidence in the leadership of the foundation and in the foundation board," Pollard said. "We are now going to move forward with the recommendations in the auditor's report."

Disturbed by move

But Lance Billingsley, chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, said yesterday that he was disturbed by Pollard's move to back Davis as head of the foundation. "Certainly there have to be very serious questions about the gentleman's ability to be executive director, particularly in a fiduciary capacity."

Auditors have noted problems at the foundation for several years. Annual audits for fiscal years 1996, 1994 and 1993 said the organization had inadequate internal controls over money.

The most recent audit, performed by the Baltimore accounting firm of King, King and Associates, says the foundation overspent its general operating budget or "unrestricted funds" by $63,869 in its 1997 fiscal year. The foundation improperly used restricted scholarship and campus activity money to cover the deficit, according to the report.

The spending left 16 university program and scholarship funds in the red, including the Athletic Fund, down $14,750; the Bowie State Track Fund, down $9,492; and the Kaiser Permanente Nursing Fund, down $1,151, the audit states.

In addition, the report found instances of the foundation failing to comply with requirements of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget for handling federal grants. The auditors said the organization had improperly withdrawn $34,407 from a U.S. Department of Education grant endowment account.

Avis Pointer, who was executive director of the foundation during the period examined by the auditors, says she was unaware of any misspending. "I don't know anything about that. I'll have to read the audit myself," she says.

The foundation's board removed Pointer in January, after donors and trustees started calling with questions about how the foundation was handling its money. That's when Pollard and the board turned to Davis.

The all-volunteer foundation board followed its usual practice of deferring to the president in voting on the director, said foundation Treasurer Henry Arrington.

"If the president recommended [Davis] to us, I just assumed he was the person who would do the job we want and that he had good character," said Arrington, who coordinates community outreach programs for the Prince George's County State's Attorney's Office.

Davis says the foundation has improved its accounting system by retaining two university employees to help with bookkeeping and is moving to a computerized record-keeping system. Last year, the director handled sometimes disorderly paper records with the help of two students.

Despite the changes he's made and promised, Davis appears to be an unusual choice to oversee the receipt of millions of dollars.

Creditors

When Davis filed for bankruptcy in Baltimore on Sept. 23, 1991, creditors included: the Internal Revenue Service, which said he owed $2,791.19 in taxes for 1986 and 1988; the University of Maryland, College Park, which said he owed $1,131 for four classes; the Maryland Department of Transportation, which said he bounced a $769 check for the taxes and registration of a car; and landlords Richard and Bonnie Klein of Catonsville, who said he bounced $3,140 in rent checks.

"He's a very nice, charming guy," Bonnie Klein said in a recent interview. "I could see how someone would hire him. He wrote us a couple of bad checks. I believe that the debt was satisfied by garnishments."

Davis says he filed for bankruptcy to prevent his family's home in Wilmington from being seized in a foreclosure. He says he later paid off this debt and all of the others mentioned in the bankruptcy filing.

The bankruptcy, he said, "was to protect some family property, but we dropped it. I was advised that we didn't have to go through with it. We were able to work it out financially."

Court records indicate that the bankruptcy was dismissed in 1992 because Davis failed to follow proper filing procedures.

The counseling association sued Davis in August 1994 in Prince George's County District Court, charging that he had withdrawn all the money from its account March 26, 1993, shortly before his term as president ended. The association, which holds educational conferences at Bowie State, helps counselors become more sensitive to issues of race and culture.

"He used these monies for his own personal needs," wrote another past president of the organization, Aaron B. Stills, in the court complaint. "He refuses to return the money to the association."

Protest

Davis acknowledges withdrawing the money without approval, but says he did it to protest the way the group was handing out scholarships. He says the leaders were giving scholarships to their friends and relatives. So, Davis says, he withdrew the money and gave it to students whom he and others felt were more deserving.

"We did take the money, and we did do what we wanted to do with it," Davis said. "But we gave it out as scholarships for students. And I make no apology for that."

In a March 1, 1994, letter to Pollard that is included in the court file, Stills asked for help in obtaining the money.

"As a last resort, to collect the money without legal means, the association is respectfully consulting with you for your assistance in resolving this matter," Stills wrote. "We would prefer to keep this problem in the 'family.' "

Stills, 52, coordinator of the counseling doctoral programs at Howard University, says he met with Pollard to discuss the problem shortly before sending the letter.

Pollard "questioned who we were and what we were about," said Stills, who was approached by The Sun for an interview. "He put me on the defensive and said he didn't see any way he could help."

A letter in the court file signed by Davis acknowledges the meeting between Pollard and Stills on the issue. "I have been made aware by Dr. Nathanael Pollard of your visit to the university to meet with him," Davis wrote to Stills.

Pollard, though, says he knows nothing about the dispute and never saw the letter from Stills.

On Aug. 22, 1995, a judge issued a $4,491 judgment -- the money taken from the counseling organization's account plus interest -- against Davis. On Jan. 8, 1997, another judge issued a court order that Davis' wages be garnisheed to repay the debt.

When court officials sent the order to the state payroll office, however, they learned that the counseling organization's order would have to wait behind four other garnishment orders against Davis, according to court records. These totaled $24,047.

Since that time, Davis has paid back $2,850 of the debt to the association through garnishment, said Stills, who remains disturbed by Davis' actions.

"Not just financially, but also morally and ethically, it was devastating to our organization," said Stills. "I definitely would not trust him in any capacity in a counseling or psychological organization. I don't know about a university."

As for the warrant for Davis' arrest, Baltimore District Court records show that he failed to meet the conditions of probation after a theft charge.

Davis did not repay Avis Rent-A-Car $7,478 for a 1991 Chevrolet Corsica he rented in Baltimore in 1991 but never returned, according to court records. The theft charge was dropped, but the court ordered him to pay restitution and put him on probation. Because Davis did not pay the bill, the courts issued a warrant for his arrest Nov. 2, 1993, but never found him to deliver it.

Davis says the problem wasn't his fault. He says a teen-age cousin who was living with him ran off to Delaware with the car, but that it was later returned. Davis says he paid Avis for the excess mileage, but did not show up in court because he had moved and never received the notices.

He added, "I had no idea that they were searching for me."

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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