Howard University contract with controversial CFO Robert Tarola ends

Howard University this week parted ways with a consultant who served as the university’s chief financial officer for nearly four years and drew criticism recently from academic deans who alleged he was mismanaging the university’s fiscal affairs.

Wayne A.I. Frederick, Howard’s interim president, wrote in a letter Thursday to the campus community that the university “by mutual agreement” had ended its contract with Right Advisory LLC, a consulting firm led by Robert M. Tarola.

(Courtesy of Right Advisory LLC and Howard University) - Robert M. Tarola

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Frederick’s letter made no mention of Tarola and was silent about his record. Frederick appointed John Gordon, the university’s controller, as interim CFO.

As an independent contractor, Tarola had served as CFO of the university in Northwest Washington since January 2010, a highly unusual arrangement in higher education. Colleges and universities generally seek to fill such a sensitive position with a regular employee.

In early June, the university’s Council of Deans wrote a letter to members of the Board of Trustees that asserted their “lack of confidence” in Tarola and the financial data that he was providing them. The deans wrote that “the fiscal direction taken by Mr. Tarola ... places the very survival of the university at risk.”

In late June, Howard President Sidney A. Ribeau rejected the allegations and defended the CFO’s record, saying that during Tarola’s tenure Howard had balanced its budgets and taken numerous steps to put its fiscal house in order as it faced revenue challenges including federal budget cuts and fluctuating enrollment.

Ribeau announced his retirement Oct. 1, and his departure takes effect at the end of December.

Federal tax returns show that Howard paid Right Advisory about $1.1 million in fiscal 2011, and about $1.6 million in fiscal 2012.

Reached by e-mail Thursday, Tarola wrote that he had given notice of the contract termination on Oct. 7, soon after Ribeau’s announcement.

“We were hired by him and helped him achieve major financial and operational accomplishments including: four straight years of operating surpluses after years of deficits, the recapitalization of the balance sheet to eliminate debt covenant defaults, and the securing of bank and investor support for his renewal initiatives,” Tarola wrote. He said these steps helped Howard launch construction of new dormitories and a research building, as well as renovate several campus facilities.

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