BOT votes for external investigation

FAMU Board of Trustees chair Kristin Harper stands alongside President Larry Robinson and Trustee Kelvin Lawson Photo Courtesy: FAMU Forward

The Florida A&M Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Wednesday to launch an external investigation into the now-debunked donation of $237 million by Gregory Gerami.

The vote came after over 90 minutes of statements from members of the community, trustee members,  FAMU President Larry Robinson as well as extensive discussions among the trustees on which university official should oversee the contracting of an external firm.

The motion, by Chairwoman Harper, reads as follows:

“I move that the board of trustees hire an external firm to perform a complete investigation of the major gift since its inception to determine what happened, compliance with applicable policies, processes and financial controls, and to recommend any corrective actions within the written report under the leadership of the board of trustees audit chair with regular updates to the board of trustees based on the timeline established by the external firm.”

The Board of Trustees along with FAMU students and alums, have scrutinized the unprecedented nine-figure donation since the University’s announcement. The meeting allowed a handful of members from the community to share their thoughts before the meeting began.

Toby Rutledge, a FAMU graduate of FAMU’s School of Pharmacy, suggested during his time that there should be discussions on future processes regarding how the university handles donations that are not cash or stocks.

“If it can happen for a large gift, where bylaws can be bypassed, it can happen for any gift, theoretically,” Rutledge said. 

Trustee Michael White, who also serves as the chair of Audit and Compliance on the BOT, shared his frustration with his lack of insight into the transaction. 

“Why does transparency seem to be lacking?” White asked. “Why is management feeling as if they do not have to tell us very key, insightful things?”

In a statement, Board of Trustees Chairwoman Kristin Sharpe outlined the timeline of the events over the past several days leading up to Wednesday’s meeting, saying that she had multiple meetings with President Robinson over his role in the donation, as well as the state university system chancellor and the president of the Florida Board of Governors.

Sharpe also noted that the FAMU Foundation voted to approve a “multidisciplinary” and “multi-committee” evaluation of the proposed donation’s bylaws, processes and procedures.

Before Harper could put the motion to a vote, fellow board members clashed on which university officials should have a role in the external investigation. There was a discussion on how large of a role, if any, Rica Calhoun, the FAMU Chief Officer of Compliance and Ethics, and Joseph Maleszewski, the FAMU Vice President of Audit, should have. 

Joseph Maleszewski stated during the call that a university official must be involved when contracting with external entities. Calhoun also noted the roles would be solely administrative. 

Trustee member Otis Cliatt II expressed that the board needed to follow processes and that the FAMU Audit Committee should determine whether university officials should be involved and make recommendations to the Board of Trustees.

“We are here today because processes have not been followed,” Cliatt said. “At some point, we have to follow processes that are in place.”

Trustee Gibbons disagreed, stating that because this was an unprecedented matter, the decision should rest with the FAMU Chair of Compliance and Audit on the Board of Trustees[White], who then would work with university officials, including Maleszewski, to draft a contract with the external firm.

“Put this in Mike White’s hands,” Gibbons said. “As chair of Audit and Compliance, let him negotiate with whatever firm we see fit and move this process forward.”

Trustee Judge Belvin Perry Jr. raised concern over questions from the Board to President Robinson, citing that such questions would compromise a future investigation. Board members refrained from questioning Robinson during the meeting.

During the meeting, President Robinson, in a statement, took full responsibility for his role in the proposed donation to the university and apologized to the Board of Trustees, along with students, faculty and staff. 

Robinson admitted that “missteps were made” regarding the proposed donation by Gerami and added that he would be “much more transparent” with significant future monetary contributions to the university.

In a press release last week, the university claimed the money was “in the bank.”

“I wanted it to be real,” Robinson said. “and ignored the warning signs along the way.”

Robinson said that upon receiving news last Wednesday that the donation was not what it seemed, he contacted Chairwoman Harper and Dr. Friday-Stroud and suggested that the relationship between the university and Gerami should end. Robinson also acknowledged that he did not inform either Harper or members of the FAMU Foundation board of directors.

Robinson addressed a report that alleged that chairwoman Harper had known about the donation before Commencement and apologized to Harper. He also announced that Friday-Stroud would resign from her position within the FAMU Foundation. Friday- Stroud will continue to serve as the Dean of the School of Business and Industry.

Robinson attempted to ensure and restore faith in donors who have faithfully given to the University in the past.

“Please know that FAMU is still a sure bet when it comes to stewardship of those funds you provided us,” Robinson said. “And without question, they will be directed to the programs and special initiatives that you intended to support.”

Neither a timeline for the investigation nor a start date has been established. More updates on this developing situation will be made available as more details are revealed.