Maryland Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a conservative Republican from the Eastern Shore, had risen over two decades to a position of influence in his community when he decided it was time to go back to college to get his bachelor's degree.
Fellow students at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore say he scribbled notes in class, highlighted the textbook and always had a ready answer to the professor's questions. In another course, he turned in an eight-page paper assessing books on the Chesapeake Bay, citing his personal knowledge as a native of the region.
Sen. Richard F. Colburn (R-Dorchester) serves on the committee that oversees education issues. A General Assembly panel decided not to investigate the complaint lodged against him.
(Matt Houston -- AP)
But Colburn, 55, withdrew from the university last month, and the college career he resumed in June 2003 has become a center of controversy.
Former Colburn aide Gregory Dukes, 36, claims that he was paid to read books and articles and write five papers for the senator for two sociology courses last year, some on state time. And e-mails obtained by The Washington Post show that Colburn's daughter and a longtime friend of his corresponded about making changes to his Chesapeake Bay paper.
Colburn, who withdrew from the university March 4, denies allegations that he didn't do his own work, dismissing Dukes as an angry, fired employee who made up the claims as a personal vendetta. His attorney says the e-mails between Johanna Colburn and retired community college professor Conway Gregory are about minor editing and proofreading of the senator's work.
Colburn submitted the paper as a requirement of an independent study history course taught by Prof. Stanley DeViney. The assignment was to read two books and write a critical book report.
"As a native of the Chesapeake Bay, I must agree with Wennersten that the bay has been the most important influence in shaping the society that lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore," the author said in the first paragraph of the report.
The paper was included as an attachment to an e-mail that Johanna Colburn wrote to Gregory on Nov. 3, 2004.
"Hello, Attached is Dad's paper," she wrote from her e-mail address at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, where she works as a public relations associate in the Office of Tourism Development. "Please print it out and look over it for him as I have not had someone else proof-read it. The two of you might want to add more facts about the Eastern Shore, the environment, and a closing paragraph."
"It looks good and you are a good writer," Gregory wrote back that afternoon from his e-mail address with the Maryland Environmental Service. "I made changes primarily for clarity purposes. I think this paper is ready to be given to your father for submission for the incomplete course he owes Dr." DeViney.
Colburn's attorney, Timothy F. Maloney, told The Post in an e-mail that Johanna Colburn helped her father edit the paper and that Gregory proofread it and made "minor editorial changes."
"Both were on their own time," Maloney wrote.
Johanna Colburn did not return calls seeking comment, and Gregory would not comment.
Questions about Colburn's academic integrity became public when the Baltimore Sun reported Dukes's allegation.
In response to a complaint by Dukes, the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics met April 4 to discuss the matter but decided not to investigate because the complaint was not submitted properly and Dukes's letter didn't include enough evidence for the committee to make a decision.
Democrats, however, have pounced on the allegations.
"He's in an embarrassing situation," said Del. Rudolph C. Cane (D-Wicomico). "If he made his bed hard, he's going to have to lay on it."
The political rise of Colburn, who is town manager of Federalsburg in Caroline County, is an up-by-the-bootstraps story of a man who spent more than two decades working at a supermarket in Easton.
A legislator who once wore a tie that read, "Don't Tread on Me," he is known in his district as an advocate for farmers, firefighters and other working people. In 1998, he proposed holding a referendum that would have allowed the Eastern Shore to secede from Maryland. Colburn is chairman of the Eastern Shore Senate delegation and a member of the committee that oversees education issues.
"He was the champion of Joe Six-Pack," said John W. Cole (R), chairman of the Caroline County Board of Commissioners.
Fellow students Jareem Bowling and Aly Samabaly said Colburn was an active class participant.
"He did his work, he asked questions, he participated. A little too much, actually. He made me look bad," said Bowling, 23, a senior sociology major.
Said Samabaly, also 23, "We used to make fun of him for working so hard."
Dukes said he received $300 for three short papers and additional money for a term paper in a sociology class, American Minority Groups, last year. Dukes said he also read two books about politics and wrote a paper for another of Colburn's independent study courses with DeViney.
One note to Dukes from Gregory, written on an envelope with the heading "Colburn Papers," reads: "Greg, these are to be mailed to [DeViney] after you complete last paper and cover letter and I review. Thanks, Conway."
Maloney said Dukes wasn't doing Colburn's homework but was merely his typist on his own, private time. The senator wrote his papers in longhand because he didn't know how to type or use computers, Maloney said. Others who worked for him also said that Colburn doesn't use computers.
Colburn left the university because of the demands of his legislative job, Maloney said.
Gregory had long been a friend of Colburn's, Maloney said. Gregory's résumé indicates that he has been a grants writer in Federalsburg and served as Colburn's legislative aide. He was deputy director of the Maryland Environmental Service until he left the agency March 25.
"I don't have anything to say to The Washington Post or the Baltimore Sun or to anyone else," Gregory told The Post.
Donise Cameron, 32, who lives with Dukes, said she watched him labor over the senator's homework in their home in Stevensville.
"We discussed the dilemma of whether he should continue doing them or whether he had to be truthful," said Cameron, who used to volunteer for Colburn. "Every night, he felt it was a drain on him, and he didn't want to do it."
Dukes said he plans to resubmit his complaint with an affidavit.
"This probably goes without saying," Maloney wrote in the e-mail to The Post, "but I should point out that if we start routing out everyone who had a family member help them with their homework, there wouldn't be many elected officials left in office."
Staff writer David Snyder and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.