Montgomery College president ran up $65,000 in expenses

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brian K. Johnson, accused by faculty leaders of excessive spending while president of Montgomery College, reported about $65,000 in airfare, lodgings, meals and other work-related expenses in the two full fiscal years he was on the job, according to financial documents released by the school under public records laws.

Maryland's largest community college is about to reach a legal settlement with Johnson, who was put on paid leave in September. An agreement is expected as early as this week, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

A spokesman for Johnson, Mike Frisby, said the former president could not discuss the settlement negotiations until they are concluded.

Johnson previously has defended his spending, saying he recovered only legitimate business expenses, often involving other officials.

The president's detractors used his credit-card receipts to drive him from the job, portraying him as a leader who was off at conferences and top-drawer restaurants when he should have been on campus, steering the institution through a recession. They said Johnson's spending was inappropriate while he was calling for cuts across the institution.

On a single day in March, records show, Johnson charged $130 for a Virginia limousine service, $100.32 for a D.C. steakhouse, $776.39 for airfare, $144.80 for a spa in Utah and $20 for Metro fare. There were big-ticket expenses such as the $4,051 hotel bill in Delhi. There were also small but symbolic examples of perceived excess, such as two visits to high-end car washes in 10 days.

College trustees removed Johnson a week after the faculty approved a vote of no confidence in the president. In a written report, faculty leaders alleged Johnson had "destabilized" the college in 2 1/2 years of governance by leaving his office for days at a time, missing important events, intimidating employees and overspending.

"He turned out not to be what they wanted in a college president. That's the bottom line," said Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), a member of the County Council's education committee.

Johnson said in September that he was the victim of a "vicious attack on my credibility" coordinated by faculty members to gain the upper hand in labor negotiations. He said he left his office only for meetings, events and scheduled leave. He said he hired town cars, not limousines. The hotel bill in Delhi, he said, was picked up by the college foundation. Johnson noted that the Middle States Commission on Higher Education praised the school's administrative strength in renewing its accreditation in summer 2008.

"His claim is that they've ruined his reputation," said Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who chairs the education committee of the County Council. She communicated with Johnson shortly after his departure. "His message to me was, he wasn't able to get his day in court."

The expenses filed by Johnson between his hiring in February 2007 and June 2009 show no charge that appeared clearly intended for personal use. The records supplied by the college gave only summaries of transactions: A $182.42 purchase at a CVS pharmacy in fall 2007, for example, is not detailed.

One set of records supplied by the college, for Johnson's corporate credit card, shows $33,733 in expenses in fiscal year 2008, which ended in June 2008, and $28,901 in fiscal 2009.

Another set of records, documenting all expenses within the president's office, is more comprehensive, including credit card charges and other expenses, reported by category. Those records show $31,322 in charges for Johnson in fiscal 2008 and $34,272 in fiscal 2009, excluding institutional membership dues and sponsorships, some of which were included in the other set. The tally also excludes entries that are duplicated or insufficiently annotated.

The only point of comparison within the documents is to the spending habits of his predecessor, Charlene Nunley. The records show that Nunley filed about $5,300 in expenses in the second half of 2006, the end of her tenure at the college.

College officials told the County Council in September they were launching a broad review of financial controls following Johnson's suspension. Hercules Pinkney, the interim president, said he had asked for an internal audit of nine corporate credit cards used by senior managers. The trustees initiated a separate inquiry. Pinkney said at the time he wanted "new checks and balances over presidential spending," including a new auditor position reporting directly to the board of trustees.

The college plans to implement stronger guidelines next month for its corporate cards, including provisions that they be used exclusively for college business, that a specific purpose be stated for each transaction and that the president's transactions be subject to review by a senior vice president.

College trustees are expected to select a search firm next month to help the board find Johnson's permanent successor. He is under contract until the end of June and drawing a $233,210 annual salary.

Staff writer Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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