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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Former A&T leader defends his record

Former N.C. A&T Chancellor James Renick on Tuesday defended his tenure at the university, which is under scrutiny for financial irregularities, poor internal controls and other problems that leaders say stem from previous administrations.

"I am extremely proud of the accomplishments of the faculty, staff and students at North Carolina A&T State University while I was chancellor," Renick said in a statement issued through a spokesman at the American Council on Education in Washington, where he works.

"During that time, state officials annually conducted a rigorous series of financial audits of the institution," said Renick, who left A&T in May after almost seven years at the helm. "Those audits, which remain part of the public record, found no serious financial irregularities."

Renick, through the spokesman, declined a request for an interview with the News & Record.

At interim Chancellor Lloyd Hackley’s request, top officials and audit teams from the UNC system began investigating problems at A&T in late December.

Chancellor-elect Stanley Battle, set to begin work July 1, said he’s been briefed every step of the way and is confident the investigation is being handled professionally.

"Without a doubt, the leadership is trying to make sure that when I do arrive, the institution will be as stable as possible, and we’ll just proceed from there," he said.

"My excitement about coming has not diminished one iota. In fact, I’m more excited than ever."

The internal examination began around the time police arrested Rodney Harrigan, a former vice chancellor charged with embezzlement. Harrigan no longer works for the university.

Thus far, auditors haven’t found similar allegations connected with other top A&T officials, Hackley said Monday.

According to a review of state financial audits dating to 2002, two audits uncovered "significant deficiencies" in internal controls that would hurt the university’s ability to track and report financial data. The auditor’s office did not find any "material weaknesses," meaning a control is so flawed it wouldn’t likely catch errors or fraud.

Administrators said the inquiry primarily is aimed at finding the most efficient ways to operate the university.

"By far, the majority of work we’re doing there is to look at improvements in processes rather than to find allegations and make charges," said Jeff Davies, the chief of staff at UNC General Administration.

In the business and finance office, for example, staff members are evaluating whether the checks and balances in place provide proper oversight for federal grants, said Willie T. Ellis Jr., A&T’s vice chancellor for business and finance.

Ellis said the review was a precautionary measure, based on the volume of federal dollars that come to the university. A&T, the third-leading grant recipient in the UNC system, will handle roughly $30 million in federal grants this year, he said.

Many officials said the audits will ultimately make A&T a better and stronger institution.

"We’re taking this very seriously," Ellis said. "Everyone is just trying to add value to the university."

This isn’t the first time auditors have been called in to scour A&T’s books and policies. In 1980, the state auditor’s office found inadequate bookkeeping, a sizable number of unpaid bills and improperly transferred money at the university.

Henry Bridges, state auditor during that investigation, called A&T’s records "essentially unauditable," according to news reports from the time.

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