Spending Scandal at Texas Southern Ends Quietly

HOUSTON

Students at Texas Southern University often have to work their way through college, and most of them need financial aid to follow in the footsteps of alumni Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland at the historically Black, open-enrollment university.

But the school’s now former president, Dr. Priscilla Slade, dressed in Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. Her 25-place dinner set cost $40,000. Her couch cost $17,800.

The former accounting professor was using university money to dress, decorate and landscape her house, take spa treatments and exercise classes.

The scandal outraged the city and Slade, with her sleek-coiffed hair and dazzling smile, became a symbol of excess. Prosecutors charged her and two associates with crimes that could have put them behind bars for life.

But that didn’t happen. After two high profile trials, including a mistrial, the cases are ending with little fanfare. After a mistrial, Slade agreed to pay back $127,000 of the more than $500,000 she misspent from the university. Former TSU vice president Bruce Wilson agreed to pay back $12,000. Charges were dropped against another defendant.

The only conviction prosecutors obtained was against Quintin Wiggins, TSU’s former chief financial officer. Wiggins was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but after little more than a year in prison, he was approved for parole earlier this month.

“It’s clearly not what the prosecution originally envisioned when they started this case,” said Michael Wynne, a Houston attorney not connected to the case.

The allegations against Slade coincided with the discovery of a pattern of financial mismanagement at TSU. Gov. Rick Perry demanded the resignations of the entire nine-member board of regents and the state put $13 million in funding on hold.

The case tarnished TSU’s reputation and the new leaders say they are working to rebuild it.

“We have not been focused on these cases,” said Glenn Lewis, the new chairman of TSU’s Board of Regents. “We are focused more on the future. I think that’s the best approach to it.”

The fizzle with which the scandal ended disappointed some students.

“I’m mad, especially after tuition started going up and all, and then this happens,” said senior Jarel Brown of the scandal’s end.

Junior Nancy Oluwatopi said the suspension of state funds meant she didn’t get the financial aid she was counting on.

“I’m pretty upset at what she did, I’m extremely upset,” she said. “It’s just too many problems that weren’t supposed to be there.”

Slade’s nearly two-month trial on a charge of misapplication of fiduciary property ended in October 2007 in a mistrial.

At first prosecutors vowed to retry Slade. But in March, Slade pleaded no contest and agreed to repay TSU more than $127,000 and perform 400 hours of community service. Her record will be cleared if she completes 10 years of probation.

Prosecutors said they had to weigh the importance of retrying Slade against the cost of another trial.

They might have had a difficult time in a retrial since several jurors in her trial expressed support for her.

“We are trying to move forward, as long as she was willing to make some acceptance of responsibility, there was some restitution to the university and an understanding of what she did was criminal,” said prosecutor Donna Goode.

Goode said Slade also made other payments to TSU and the university got some of the proceeds of the sale of one her homes. The school also kept $200,000 worth of furniture Slade bought, but Goode acknowledged that if TSU tried to sell it, it would probably only get “pennies on the dollar if that.”

Mike DeGeurin, Slade’s attorney, said his client should never have been indicted, much less put on trial, because she committed no crime.

“We could have retried the case over and over again,” DeGeurin said. “The resolution of ending the waste of resources, energy and judicial resources with no finding of a crime and agreeing upon an arbitrary amount to reimburse the university seemed prudent.”

Joel Androphy, a Houston attorney not connected to the case, said prosecutors got the best outcome possible.

“They probably wanted to see her go to jail but that was not in the cards,” he said.

Wilson agreed to pay nearly $12,000 to the school. Once the money is paid back, the charges against him will be dismissed.

“I think he’s glad to have it over with,” said Edward Mallet, Wilson’s attorney. “It’s a resolution that let everyone feel like they got something.”

Prosecutors last year dropped charges against Frederick Holts, the university’s senior safety system engineer, a day before jury selection in his trial was to start.

That left Wiggins, TSU’s former chief financial officer and Slade’s so-called “yes man,” as the only defendant in prison.

He was sentenced to 10 years in May 2007 after being convicted on one count of misapplication of fiduciary property with a value over $200,000.

But the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles approved Wiggins’ application for parole earlier this month. He could be free within two months.

Goode said it’s not unusual that Slade, the main target of the investigation, avoided prison time.

“The system rewards people who cooperate, no matter how culpable you are,” Androphy said.

But Wiggins’ appellate attorney, Stanley Schneider, said it’s unfair his client is the only one who was sent to prison.

“Quintin did nothing wrong,” he said. “He signed the checks and that’s all he did.”

Prosecutors said Wiggins diverted TSU funds into accounts that Slade used for her purchases.

Schneider filed a 133-page appeal last month asking that Wiggins either be acquitted or given a new trial.

Wiggins’ appeal accuses his trial attorney, L. Mickele Daniels, of being ineffective.

“I feel that given the crime, the defendant’s criminal history and his decision not to testify, that the 10-year sentence was a victory for the defense,” Daniels said in an affidavit.

Since the indictments were first announced in 2006, TSU has a new president and board of regents.

The school also received approval of a reorganization plan, which meant it could begin to spend some $13 million of state money that was put on hold after TSU’s financial problems became public.

Lewis said he is grateful the settlement of the cases has resulted in some restitution for the school.

“We feel good about any money that we receive,” he said.

Junior Trey Barton said that although students were initially upset with the president’s mishandling of funds, he is happy with its new leadership.

“It bothered me last year, but now we have a new president that’s taking care of keeping order,” Barton said. “Back then it was a big deal. But it already blew over.”

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