At Jefferson State Community College a group of students waits for a bus after a full morning of classes. Shaunte Herring juggles school and work, so allegations that some community college employees and state lawmakers are cheating the system really sting.
“It makes me feel like I worked for nothing! My GPA is a 3.8. I did my work for my scholarship, but people who’s not doing it, it’s just an easy – go on, it’s just – I don’t like it!”
Investigators say one community college president gave scholarships to friends and used state money for personal expenses. Their draft report, uncovered by the Birmingham News, also reveals college officials hired friends and family without advertising the jobs. Alabama House Majority Leader Ken Guin, an attorney, allegedly billed two community colleges nearly $100,000 for the same work. Fellow democrat Representative Joseph Mitchell is suspicious.
“Some of us run around for years trying to find a single job. I’m trying to find out how is it that a singular individual can get two jobs on the same day doing almost identically the same thing. That’s just – wow!”
Representative Guin did not return repeated phone calls. Since 2002, nearly a third of Alabama’s legislators, their immediate family or their businesses have received jobs and contracts from the two-year college system. Republican representative Mike Ball wants to post online all financial dealings between elected officials and state agencies.
“There’s no question that some of the people who have hired legislators surely in the back of their mind they can see the value of having somebody in the legislature on their payroll who would lobby their causes.”
This scandal has roots in Alabama history. In 1963, the same year as his infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” to protest desegregation at the University of Alabama, Governor George Wallace also created two-year colleges and quickly handed out jobs to friends and political allies.
Today, the body that overseas the two-year college system – the State School Board – has come under fire for lax oversight. Board member Betty Peters says she’s tried to suss out potential problems. She asked for a list of all consultants hired by the post-secondary system. But when she got it, she couldn’t tell if contracts were for $50 or $50 million.
“And I was furious! I get this, it has no numbers on it! And when we ask about that, ‘oh, oh that’s gonna take a lot of time to get the numbers’. (laughs) What kind of fool do you take us for?!?!’
Alabama lawmakers may consider a bill to restrict the jobs state lawmakers can hold with state agencies. Texas doesn’t allow anyone serving in the general assembly to hold a job in higher education. But Peggy Kerns doesn’t like that idea. She’s director of the Center for Ethics and Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“For example, if somebody is a public school teacher that usually is part of the person’s campaign and the people who vote know about that. The expectation is that she use that expertise because she can contribute to the debate.”
So far, two people have pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering at the Fire College and thirteen are charged with theft at a community college in Mobile. Observers say more state lawmakers may be implicated and the problems could extend into the University system as well.