Wednesday, September 09, 2009

What the Montgomery College Board of Trustees Should Do Now

Last week, the Montgomery College Board of Trustees suspended President Brian Johnson with pay for issues connected to his expenses and leadership. They also hired a retired college administrator as their Acting President. But that’s just the beginning. The board has to do three things to start righting the listing ship.

1. Investigate Johnson.
At this point, Johnson’s expense practices are characterized by allegations and the quality of his leadership is a matter of opinion. Neither are backed by proven facts and yet they are the twin grounds cited by the board for their action. The college should hire a forensic auditor to examine Johnson’s spending. The investigation’s scope should also include testing the veracity of his explanations to the Washington Post, one of which was that his credit card was “compromised” and that some records may have been “fraudulent.” Finally, the results of the investigation must be publicly released.

This is important for four reasons. First, the college must adhere to standards of transparency. It is not a private institution; it requires $228 million of public support. The college’s stakeholders as well as the county’s taxpayers deserve an accounting of what did and did not happen on Johnson’s watch. Second, Johnson is due to receive his full salary (an annual rate of $233,210) through his contract’s expiration in June 2010. If the investigation finds he committed wrong-doing, the college should terminate him for cause. If not, he should be paid in conformance with his contract. Third, Johnson denies the allegations. If he is right, he deserves exoneration. If he is wrong, he should be proven a liar. Fourth, Johnson may sue. If he does, the college will need more than the faculty report and a handful of newspaper clippings and blog posts to defend itself.

2. Do a Real Background Check Next Time.
It is inexcusable that the Board of Trustees apparently had no idea that Johnson once litigated three court cases involving different children with two mothers at the same time. That was a red flag for future legal problems, such as the arrest warrant. This failure of the search process belongs to the board alone.

When the board looks for Johnson’s successor, it should employ a true background check that should not only include academic references and interviews with past colleagues. It should also involve a complete public records investigation including:

Residential history
Criminal, civil and family litigation history, including bankruptcies
Credit check
Property encumbrances, liens and debt
Business history, including any litigation or debt issues involving entities under the applicant’s control
Literature review from LexisNexis and/or Factiva on the applicant, current and former businesses and current and former employers

Any competent private investigator offers the above as a standard work product. Failure to gather this information exposes the college to a second consecutive embarrassment.

3. Tighten Up the Credit Card Policy.
I carry a corporate credit card for my employer. I could never have engaged in the practices that Johnson allegedly committed for two reasons. First, my card has a monthly expense limit. I cannot exceed it without authorization from my supervisor. Second, the card is my personal responsibility. If the employer does not approve an expense I submit, I have to pay it. The employer does not have to seek the money from me. It would be an issue between me and the credit card issuer. If my employer can establish a policy of this kind, there is no reason why Montgomery College (and the rest of county government) cannot.

The real test of the Montgomery College Board of Trustees is not what they do about Brian Johnson. It’s whether they hire another Brian Johnson and allow him to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes. Let’s see if they pass.