Blunt told 2 MOHELA members he wanted agency's director out

Monday, October 16, 2006

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Gov. Matt Blunt told two members of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority board in a telephone call that he wanted the agency's executive director replaced, according to a newspaper report.

The Jan. 24 telephone conference call took place hours before the board met and fired Executive Director Mike Cummins, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported in Sunday's editions. Blunt had said he wanted Rick Fouts, a former controller at MOHELA, to replace Cummins, but the board chose Raymond Bayer Jr., a 21-year veteran of the agency and its associate director of business operations.

The telephone call involving Blunt and other circumstances of Cummins' dismissal are described in sworn statements taken in August from some members of the MOHELA board by lawyers for Attorney General Jay Nixon. The depositions are the first indication that Blunt had a role in Cummins' firing, the Tribune reported.

Nixon sued the board in February, alleging 12 violations of the state's Open Meetings and Records Law between Jan. 20 and Jan. 31.

MOHELA helps students obtain college loans. A plan is being considered to sell MOHELA's loans to raise $350 million for higher education projects. The MOHELA board approved the sale last week. The University of Missouri-Columbia would receive more than $94 million of that money. The issue will go before the legislature.

The board voted 4-3 to fire Cummins because he opposed Blunt's plan to sell MOHELA and use the money for construction projects on university campuses. Blunt's part in Cummins' departure was not direct.

James Ricks, a member of the board at that time, said Blunt told him he wanted Cummins replaced but put no timetable on it. In a deposition, Ricks discussed a telephone conference call involving himself, Blunt and board member Gregory Fitch. Paul Wilson, a deputy chief of staff in Nixon's office, asked Ricks whether Blunt had said anything about Cummins' conduct or job performance, according to the Tribune.

"I can't remember, except that I do know there were some specific comments that he needed to be replaced," Ricks said. "I think the governor wanted Rick Fouts to be the new CEO."

Ricks said he told the governor he would be supportive. And while the board agreed to fire Cummins, it selected Bayer instead. Spence Jackson, a spokesman for Blunt's office, said the governor was asked his opinion on Cummins and he gave it.

"It's not uncommon for people in other agencies to ask him for his opinion," Jackson said. "I do think he wasn't pleased with his" - Cummins' - "performance as it was described to him by others on the call. It's up to MOHELA as to whether those changes are made, and the governor fully respects their right to do it or not do it."

In the call, Fitch, who was the state's commissioner of higher education, said Cummins had been making statements to state lawmakers opposing Blunt's plan to sell MOHELA. Fitch said the board's mandate to Cummins was to seek information about the loan sale plan, not to lobby against it.

The deposition of board member Kathryn Swan shows that Blunt talked to her by telephone the same day that he spoke with Ricks and Fitch. But it cannot be determined from Swan's heavily redacted statement whether Blunt asked her to replace Cummins. A court-issued protective order, sought by lawyers for MOHELA and its board members, means that some statements considered confidential are blacked out.

However, Swan said Blunt told her she would be getting another telephone call that day from board member James Mauze, who was a key part of the campaign to fire Cummins.

"I hope you accept his phone call," Blunt told Swan.

The depositions indicate Mauze played a central role in Cummins' firing and knew about the MOHELA sale plan in advance. The Tribune has previously reported how Mauze separately spoke with Ricks, Fitch and Swan about firing Cummins. He also faxed to all three copies of resolutions to fire the executive director as well as a step-by-step process to carry it out.


Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com

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