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In the Hot Seat

March 20, 2006

It’s not an easy job to lead the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland -- at least not without getting in trouble.

In 1999, Lance Billingsley resigned as chair and served the rest of his term as a regent after allegations of impropriety surfaced because he was paid to help his law firm's clients gain access to then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. In 2004, Billingsley’s successor, Nathan A. Chapman Jr., was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison for defrauding the state’s pension fund.

Today, a number of critics, especially those in the legislature, have questions about the current chairman, David H. Nevins, and whether his consulting business and political relationships might be compromising his leadership role.

During his tenure, he has worked privately with Comcast and the Constellation Energy Group, both of which have served as contractors within the university system. He also met with state lawmakers last month on behalf of Concentra Integrated Services, a health-care management firm. State law indicates that regents “shall not, for compensation, assist or represent any party in any matter before the General Assembly.”

Nevins has also given $14,250 to candidates since the last election, and his consulting firm has contributed another $11,025. Maryland has a $10,000 cap on contributions in an election cycle.

Fellow regents are in the process of conducting ethics probes of Nevins’s dealings, and an independent state ethics committee is also investigating.

“We ought to do a better job of appointing regents,” Frank S. Turner, a state delegate who is a Democrat, said Friday. “The ultimate responsibility has to come during the selection process.” Maryland’s governor -- in this case Robert Ehrlich, a Republican -- is responsible for appointing regents. 

Nevins was traveling and could not be reached for comment for this article, but, in an article published in The Washington Post on Friday, he said that he is “ably juggling his university system post while also doing work for some of the state's largest corporations.” He told the newspaper that he has always disclosed his business relationships and recused himself from deliberations and votes when conflicts arose. He also said that some of his political giving was done by his wife but not recorded that way.

Billingsley remained a lawyer after he ultimately left the Board of Regents, and has now retired. He said that legislators “tend to underestimate the understanding that a chairman has as to what is or is not proper.”   

“There seems to be a lack of trust between the legislature and the ability of regents to sort through these issues,” he said Friday. “Certainly the legislature has to be an overseer to some extent, but shouldn’t intervene and interfere for political purposes.”

Turner denied that legislators have any political vendetta against Nevins.  “We want this to remain the most prestigious board in the state of Maryland,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like the selection process has worked well to date.”

Billingsley, who spoke while watching his granddaughter frolic on his newly planted lawn, said that while he loved serving the Maryland serving system, he doesn’t miss his time in the cross hairs.

 

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