Rising star falls from grace at Alcorn State

Published 6:38 pm Friday, February 21, 2014

Alcorn-Brown

 

The Associated Press

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LORMAN — 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.

“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 Average Joe Entertainment LLC, a production company associated with Jeremy Mason, a key Brown aide, the 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.

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.

Brown was generally well-liked on campus.

“I enjoyed him as president … He really looked out for the band,” said Israel Thompson, 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.

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.

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.

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.”

Neither Roberts nor Mason would comment for this story.