Morgan could lose autonomy over projects

The Baltimore Sun

Amid a criminal investigation into its contracting practices, Morgan State University's control over its construction projects is shaping up to be one of the major debates in the final two weeks of the General Assembly session. A House of Delegates subcommittee is poised to rein in the school, but key senators say they are reluctant to act so quickly.

At a hearing scheduled for today, the House panel that oversees Morgan State's budget is likely to recommend limiting the school's hard-won autonomy over campus projects, said Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Last night, members of the powerful House Appropriations Committee were still privately debating how sweeping an action they would recommend. But among the most likely steps is a deferral of $3 million in planning funds for a new $80 million business school near the Northeast Baltimore campus, said Jones, who chairs the capital budget subcommittee, and Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., the St. Mary's County Democrat who leads the education subcommittee.

Bohanan said his committee is split between members who want to "go light" on Morgan and those who want to "go strong."

"Hopefully, we will end up somewhere in the middle," he said.

Actions under consideration include:

Holding up about $10 million in budgeted construction plans until Morgan hires an outside entity to review and overhaul its capital management process.

Requiring the university to use independent construction managers for certain existing and future projects.

Stripping Morgan entirely of its autonomy, granted in 2004 and 2006, to strike deals with contractors and manage its own buildings projects.

Before the legislature gave Morgan autonomy, its campus improvements were subject to approval and management by the state Department of General Services. The 2006 bill that awarded the college full construction authority put it on equal footing with the University System of Maryland and St. Mary's College of Maryland.

Whatever actions the House takes, they face a cool reception in the Senate, where Morgan historically has had stronger support.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, the Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, said yesterday that he believes it is "premature" to discipline Morgan.

Currie said the Senate's final capital budget will have "some language" expressing concern over Morgan's procurement issues but that it will be "nowhere close" to what the House probably will recommend.

Concern over Morgan's construction management emerged after the release of a routine fiscal audit last month in which investigators found that the school appeared to have circumvented rules governing state approval and execution of contracts in some projects.

The audit, released Feb. 14, and subsequent legislative hearings, have diminished confidence in Morgan State among some lawmakers who oversee its budget. The state attorney general's office has launched a criminal investigation, and one Morgan construction manager has resigned under pressure.

The investigation focused largely on one contract with Baltimore-based Whiting Turner Contracting Co. that included a $3.1 million "allowance" that the university used without state approval to pay the same contractor for cost overruns on other projects.

Bruce A. Myers, the chief legislative auditor, has said that in his 10 years in the post, he never had seen a multimillion-dollar allowance written into a public contract without plans on how to spend the funds.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat who holds a position roughly equivalent to Bohanan's, said he wanted to wait until the attorney general's investigation is complete before taking serious action.

"We're very concerned," Kasemeyer said. "But we don't want to pass judgment at this point."

Any differences between the House and Senate capital budgets will have to be ironed out in conference committee.

Morgan officials did not respond to calls yesterday seeking comment. But in response to intense criticism in Annapolis, campus officials and their supporters have been suggesting that some lawmakers and the news media are unfairly singling out the college for scrutiny.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, has accused the House Appropriations Committee of "bias against historically black institutions."

Jones, a black member of the committee, dismissed that suggestion.

"I don't think we've been unfairly targeting Morgan," said Jones, who noted that her son attends the school. "But we need to make sure safeguards are in place."

In a March 17 letter to Bohanan, Dallas Evans, chairman of Morgan's governing Board of Regents, said he was "troubled" that the legislature and its auditors did not expend as much energy on a 2003 kickback scheme involving about $140,000 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In a March 20 reply letter to Evans, Bohanan dismissed the UMBC incident as dissimilar in scope and nature. He also wrote that he was not satisfied with a corrective action plan submitted by Morgan at lawmakers' request.

Bohanan told Evans that he believed the "university's ability to manage construction projects currently under way ... is severely compromised," given the auditors' findings.

Morgan State is not a member of the University System of Maryland, which is governed by a separate Board of Regents.

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