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Lawsuit against college draws federal involvement

MOUNT VERNON, Ga. (BP)–The federal government has joined a lawsuit against Brewton-Parker College and several administrators for allegedly awarding grants to unqualified students and other financial aid irregularities.
The lawsuit, initiated last winter by Martha Faw, former assistant financial aid director at the Baptist-related college in Mount Vernon, Ga., was the focus of an article in the Oct. 15 issue of Southeast Journal, a regional publication of The Wall Street Journal.
The Georgia Baptist Convention also has been named as a defendant in the initial lawsuit, filed under the federal False Claims Act, commonly known as the whistle-blower law, but the convention has not been named in the government’s case, according to news reports. The convention provides financial support to Brewton-Parker and other Baptist-related colleges through the Cooperative Program.
According to the Wall Street Journal publication, the federal complaint, filed Oct. 20, could result in Brewton-Parker owing the federal government up to $25.2 million in reimbursement and penalties, nearly twice the college’s $12.7 million budget.
In her lawsuit, Faw claimed Brewton-Parker intentionally administered improper government funds to students for at least 11 years. She also claimed the college terminated her when she identified and attempted to correct the misappropriation.
Y. Lynn Holmes, Brewton-Parker’s president since 1983 who is among the administrators named in the suit, had denied the charges but admitted errors were made regarding the distribution of financial aid. However, he blamed the errors on carelessness, overworked staff and outdated computer programs and said the college has taken steps to correct the problems. Financial aid director Cecelia Hightower was removed from her position in August and the college has contracted with a new accounting firm.
College officials also have denied claims by Faw that student athletes were favored in the misappropriation of financial aid. This comes on the heels of the college’s baseball team winning the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics title. The Southeast Journal report quoted an N.A.I.A. official as saying an investigation into these accusations would probably be initiated by the association.
Another complaint, according to the Wall Street Journal publication, is that Brewton-Parker kept aid funds that should have been returned to the federal government when prisoners dropped out of classes taught by the college in Georgia prisons.
The government has made no formal response to an offer by Brewton- Parker to financially settle the federal lawsuit, according to college officials. Holmes said, “We had hoped that an equitable conclusion would be reached before the beginning of the 1997-98 academic year. Unfortunately, the matter remains unresolved and requires an inordinate amount of my time. It is distracting from my primary responsibility of running the college for our students.”
Holmes, a graduate of the Brewton-Parker, has led it in gaining senior college status and greatly expand the campus facilities and academic programs. At his request, the board of trustees has formed a committee to “help deal with all matters related to financial aid,” according to a recent news release. The committee, appointed by trustee chairman Ben Cochran of Dublin, Ga., includes Leonard Durrence of Blackshear, Ga., chairman-elect, and Dan Parker, a partner in an Atlanta executive search firm who will serve as press spokesperson for the college concerning matters related to financial aid.
“Despite numerous reviews by the Department of Education and independent audits by public accounting firms, no significant deviations from applicable financial aid regulations were discovered at Brewton-Parker,” Holmes said.
“Brewton-Parker has taken a number of corrective steps. These steps include: working diligently with our government to determine the amount of overpayment and to resolve the matter equitably; putting in place a series of new policies and procedures; upgrading computer software and hardware programming; replacing the school’s financial aid director with a person with more than 13 years experience; replacing staff of the financial aid office; and hiring KPMG Peat Marwick. KPMG has sent an educational specialist from Washington to review the check and balance system put in place. The firm also will conduct the college’s annual financial audit and the compliance audit in the financial aid office.”
He went on to say that when they became aware of the irregularities “Brewton-Parker officials also notified the proper government agencies. The college immediately hired an outside auditing firm to review the allegations and they found no credence to them. We will continue to work toward resolution of the matter and continue on with our main priority of providing a quality education in a Christian environment.”

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