Some of the most prominent members of Morgan State University's Board of Regents have routinely missed meetings since at least 2000, a pattern of absenteeism that critics say robs the Baltimore school of key oversight at a time when it is under criminal investigation by the Maryland attorney general for its fiscal practices.
Board members U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, former congressman Kweisi Mfume and prominent science education advocate Shirley M. Malcom have missed dozens of meetings in recent years, according to minutes from the board meetings that The Sun obtained through a public information request. Maryland law requires members of state boards and commissions to attend at least 50 percent of meetings within any 12-month period - or else "be considered to have resigned."
In response to questions about the absences, Gov. Martin O'Malley has asked appointments secretary Jeanne D. Hitchcock to look into the matter, including whether any of the absences constitute a violation of the state's law, said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.
"There's no question that Morgan State University benefits by having people like Congressman Cummings and Kweisi Mfume serve on their board," Abbruzzese said. "But the governor does expect that members will participate fully in the process."
A legislative audit published in February found that Morgan State officials padded construction contracts and evaded oversight by the state Board of Public Works, among other issues. University officials acknowledged mistakes but said they had taken steps to prevent them in the future. Still, Annapolis lawmakers punished the school by withholding millions in state construction funds until it overhauls procurement processes.
Service on public university boards of regents, which are unpaid positions in Maryland, has long been considered one of the most prestigious honors bestowed by the governor. But regents also have a responsibility to oversee millions in state funding.
"Board positions, even at nonprofit and government entities, no longer can be seen as sinecures or tributes or ceremonial," said Jeffrey A Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management who focuses on leadership and governance issues. "Mismanagement in the public sector is no less an issue" than in the corporate world, he said.
Like the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents, Morgan's 15-member governing board is appointed by the governor and charged with making major academic and financial policy decisions and overseeing the administration. The board meets at least four times a year, and most members, who are appointed to a six-year term, are also assigned to one of two committees: Finance and Facilities or Academic and Student Affairs.
In addition to missing about one-third of board meetings since 2000, Mfume, the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has also missed the past eight meetings of the regents' finance committee, according to board minutes obtained under Maryland's Public Information Act. William R Roberts, a regent and president of Verizon Maryland, has missed seven of the past eight finance committee meetings, in addition to more than a third of full-board meetings since he was appointed in 2001. Committee meetings are not subject to the state's 50-percent attendance law, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.
Mfume, currently a surrogate speaker for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, said his absences were because of scheduling conflicts. "I participate very vigorously at meetings that I attend," he said.
The seven-member finance committee oversees the business and financial policies of the university, including the procurement practices being investigated by the attorney general's criminal division. In February, the Facilities and Finance Committee met and discussed the audit. Mfume was absent.
Del. Norman H. Conway, chairman of a House of Delegates committee that was sharply critical of the Morgan regents' leadership during this year's legislative session, said he thinks the General Assembly should address the regents' attendance problems next year.
"You have to demonstrate your leadership and commitment by your attendance, and I think there may very well be a need to reiterate the significance of the roles that they play," said Conway, a Wicomico County Democrat whose committee oversees Morgan's budget.
Other Morgan regents with spotty attendance include retired Gen. Johnnie E. Wilson, who has missed nearly half of meetings held since 2000. Malcom has missed 17 of the past 34 board meetings.
In December 2007, Dallas R. Evans, chairman of Morgan's Board of Regents, asked the governor to excuse excessive absences by Malcom. Under state law, the governor may waive excessive absences, and in this case he did, Abbruzzese said.
But because of how it interprets the law, the board did not ask the governor to excuse absences by Cummings and Mfume, who have also missed more than half the meetings during some 12-month stretches of 2007 and 2008.
"The university looks at the 12-month period as running from fiscal year to fiscal year, and our records suggest that none have had any problem, except for Malcom," said Morgan spokesman Clinton R. Coleman.
Evans and Malcom did not return calls for comment. Neither did president of Verizon Maryland, William R. Roberts, who also missed various meetings.
Martin R. Resnick, the board's vice chairman who has been a member since 1983 and has a good attendance record, said he's "never really questioned" other members' attendance. "The more people who attend the meetings, the happier we are," he said. "I haven't put any emphasis on that myself, personally."
But former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did. In 2006, he declined to reappoint Cummings to the board, saying the Democratic congressman's poor attendance record disqualified him from continued service. The Republican governor's decision caused a furor in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which voted to reject Ehrlich's nominee to replace Cummings, saying that the governor's actions were politically motivated.
"It wasn't a subjective decision on our part. It was the law that said he cannot serve," said Larry Hogan, appointments secretary under Ehrlich. "These are real jobs with serious responsibilities, and it requires people who are going to put the time and energy in."
Cummings' seat remained vacant until O'Malley, a Democrat, took office in 2007. Cummings has missed three of the four board meetings held since O'Malley reappointed him in March of last year. During his entire tenure on the board since 1999, Cummings has missed about 60 percent of board meetings.
"I work hard for Morgan," said Cummings, citing millions in federal funds he has helped steer to the school, which is in his district.
But Sonnenfeld said Cummings' advocacy on Morgan's behalf in Washington is not an appropriate replacement for attendance.
"That's his congressional role," Sonnenfeld said. "He's already hired to do that. If he can't serve in management oversight decisions, then he really shouldn't be serving on the board."
Nell Minnow, a co-founder of the governance watchdog group The Corporate Library, said attendance problems of the sort experienced on the Morgan board would not be tolerated in the business world.
The Securities and Exchange Commission requires absence rates above 25 percent to be reported to shareholders.
"A board is a real job, and it requires real presence, and I mean presence of body and mind," Minnow said. "If you can't attend, you should resign."
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Education, Heath and Environmental Affairs Committee, said it's unrealistic to expect perfect attendance at board and committee meetings. "Sure, we would like to have 100 percent participation, but that's not real life."
As long as enough members attend to make a quorum, "I don't necessarily have any concerns," Conway said.
Sun reporter James Drew contributed to this article.
These members of the Morgan board of regents have missed seven or more meetings in recent years. Details, PG 12A
* Elijah E. Cummings, U.S. congressman from Maryland
* Kweisi Mfume, former congressman and head of NAACP
* Shirley M. Malcom, senior administrator, American Association for the Advancement of Science
* Johnnie E. Wilson, retired Army general:
* William R. Roberts, president of Verizon Maryland
* Elijah E. Cummings, U.S. congressman from Maryland: Has missed 60 percent of board meetings since 2000, including three of the past four. Appointed to the board in 1999. Reappointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2007.
* Kweisi Mfume, former congressman and head of NAACP: Has missed the past eight meetings of the board's Finance and Facilities Committee, and about one-third of full board meetings since 2000. Appointed in 1989. Reappointed by O'Malley in 2007.
* Shirley M. Malcom, senior administrator, American Association for the Advancement of Science: Has missed 17 of 34 board meetings since 2000. Appointed in 1997.
* Johnnie E. Wilson (picture unavailable), retired Army general: Has missed 16 of 34 board meetings since 2000. Appointed in 1999. Reappointed by O'Malley in 2007.
* William R. Roberts, president of Verizon Maryland: Has missed seven of the past eight meetings of the Finance and Facilities Committee and more than one-third of full board meetings since being appointed in 2001. Reappointed by O'Malley in 2007.
Source: Morgan State University Board of Regents minutes
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