A star’s downfall at historically Black Alcorn

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LORMAN, Miss. (AP) — M. Christopher Brown II was regarded as a rising star in the world of historically Black universities and a transformational leader at Mississippi’s Alcorn State University. Hired at just 38, he and the university were winning awards and Alcorn’s profile was on the rise.

But by his third year on the job, complaints began to surface about money spent on lavish upgrades to the president’s residence and the relationship between a Brown aide and a production company that staged campus concerts, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request. Amid an investigation of the spending by the board that oversees the university, Brown and two others resigned in December.

The probe and resignations come at a time when Alcorn and other historically Black schools are working to recover from the recession. Mississippi’s three historically Black public universities fought off a proposal by former Gov. Haley Barbour to merge them, and overall higher education spending in Mississippi has only begun to recover from sharp cuts.

“I’m sick about it because it’s going to impact recruiting, support from the Legislature, everything,” said Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds, who oversees the state’s public universities.

Hundreds of pages of invoices, checks, emails and other correspondence reviewed by the AP show Alcorn spent almost $89,000 on furniture and renovations at the president’s house — all without seeking bids as required under state law. The documents also show the production company associated with Brown’s aide university collected $85,000 in fees as part of the money Alcorn paid it. And an auditor says the school spent more than $67,000 in bond money on projects that weren’t allowed in the lending agreement.

The documents reveal for the first time details of the spending that led to Brown’s departure, which were known only among a select group of students, faculty and alumni. When Brown resigned, Bounds would only say it was related to an investigation into possible purchasing violations.

Students interviewed Wednesday on campus said they’d only heard rumors about why Brown left.

“It was kind of sudden, but no one really spoke on it. We didn’t know the president was gone unless we looked on a website,” said Ayobunni Saleem, a freshman biology major from Milwaukee.

The documents show Brown was aware of the spending on the president’s house and the concerts. It’s not clear, though, whether he knew before the probe started that money was being spent in ways that auditors would question. Reached at his home in Las Vegas, Brown declined to comment and didn’t return other messages.

In one email, Brown complains about unfinished work in the bedroom and bathroom at the two-story stucco and brick structure that overlooks a lake near Alcorn’s football stadium.

“Regrettably, I don’t function maximally in varying stages of incomplete; particularly, without clarity regarding expected delivery dates,” Brown wrote in an email dated Oct. 13, 2013, to Alcorn Senior Vice President for University Operations Betty Jean Roberts, who oversaw purchasing.

The investigation was launched after whistleblower complaints to the College Board, which runs Alcorn and Mississippi’s seven other public universities. The state auditor’s office is also investigating, said spokesman Brett Kittredge, who declined to provide further details.

When Brown joined Alcorn in 2011, he was viewed as an up-and-comer who had studied the history of historically Black schools and served as provost at one — Tennessee’s Fisk University — before joining Alcorn. He had previously been dean of the college of education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Students say Brown was unusually accessible, both on the historic campus that alumni call “the yard,” and on social media, reacting quickly to student complaints. He also won plaudits for bringing events to the rural campus where students say they have to make their own fun.

A saxophonist in Alcorn’s marching band gave Brown credit for an invite to the Honda Battle of the Bands in Atlanta, a showcase for top bands from historically black schools.

“I enjoyed him as president. … He really looked out for the band,” said Israel Thompson, also a sophomore biochemistry major from Gulfport, Miss.

Brown quickly won national notice for efforts to bridge racial gaps — including hiring Jay Hopson as the school’s first white football coach. He brought Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, to campus as a scholar-in-residence.

In 2012, the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy named Alcorn its school of the year, and the next year it named Brown male HBCU president of the year.

But around the same time as the latter award, trouble began to brew.

The home improvements at the heart of the scandal began in summer 2013. The plan was to replace broken-down exterior furniture and cut out the cost of renting a tent and furniture for events at the president’s house, according to a memo written later by Jessie Stephney, Alcorn’s associate vice president of facilities management. The last renovations at the house had been in 2008, he said.

A Mississippi company called Dana’s Interiors was hired to plan the work. However, the documents show no evidence that Alcorn sought competing bids as required under state law.

The university paid $29,325 for sofas, tables, chairs and pots for the house’s rear patio, including $5,356 worth of cushions with what a Dana’s invoice called “top-of-the-line sunbrella fabric.” Alcorn later paid the company another $60,000 for interior renovations and furniture. Dana’s Interiors did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Another part of the investigation focuses on how Alcorn spent a small part of the $47 million it borrowed in 2009 to build the Medgar Evers Student Village housing project.

December emails from the Mississippi-based Horne LLP accounting firm show Alcorn spent more than $67,000 of that money on its Vicksburg, Miss., campus, but that the work wasn’t allowed under the agreements signed with lenders. Dana’s Interiors was also involved in the Vicksburg work.

“The university operated under the basis that the bonds could be used for basically any construction or renovation project,” wrote Stephney. “I don’t think anyone knew, before now, that the bonds were limited to the main campus.”

Bounds said the state Ethics Commission also is examining the relationship between Jeremy Mason, who was hired as Brown’s aide in August 2012, and Average Joe Entertainment LLC. From Brown’s hiring through last year, Average Joe booked at least 12 events that cost the school $631,300, including at least $85,000 in production or consulting fees for the firm.

Resumes from Mason in 2012 and 2013 that were included in the records disclosed to AP show he had been president of Average Joe Entertainment since 2006, and LinkedIn and Facebook accounts listed him as holding that position even after he resigned from Alcorn in December.

Mississippi’s ethics laws generally forbid government workers from steering state business to other companies that they own or work for.

Emails show Brown closely tracked the renovations, which included $22,500 for plumbing, electrical work and flooring and $36,949 for bedroom and sunroom furniture. One pesky problem was a new $1,800 wool rug in the bedroom that was shedding, requiring it to be vacuumed several times a week, according to an email exchange between Brown and Roberts.

“Yes, that wool rug will shed,” Roberts wrote in an Oct. 14 email to Brown. “It’s pricey — and looks good — but is a pain in the beginning.”

Neither Roberts nor Mason, who both resigned, responded to messages seeking comment.

Bounds said expensive furniture for a president’s house might be justified because it’s used to host students, professors and donors. But, he said: “I think the issue for me here is that procurement laws were not followed.”

After the probe began, Brown wrote an Oct. 23 memo to Bounds acknowledging that “Alcorn State University failed to properly bid the project.”

By December, the College Board hired a forensic auditor to probe Alcorn’s finances and voted later that month to put Brown on administrative leave. But before the suspension took place, Brown turned in a letter resigning from the job that included a $240,000 annual salary. Bounds said he talked extensively to Brown about the board’s concerns but didn’t force him to resign.

As the College Board seeks input from students on what they want in a new president, many still speak positively of Brown.

“I don’t want to say just like the old president…,” Thompson said. “I want someone who can take the school back to the top, back to the HBCU of the year.”

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Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy

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