College scandal widens with state subpoenas, new focus on athletics

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on April 07, 2016

NEWARK — Essex County College, already thrust into turmoil after the sudden removal of its president and top attorney last month, has now caught the watchful eye of the state.

Dr. A. Zachary Yamba, who on Monday began a three-month stint as the college's acting president, confirmed officials received subpoenas from the state's Attorney General's office for documents related to a scandal that rattled the school's athletic department last year, and led to the abrupt resignation of one of its longest tenured and venerated coaches.

According to an internal report obtained by NJ Advance Media, the 25-page account of the events says the controversy began when school officials noticed a pair of debit cards issued to Athletic Director Melvin Knight and longtime track and cross country coach Michael Smart had exceeded their budgets by more than $170,000 between 2013 and 2015.

The cards were intended to cover travel costs for their teams ranging from hotel rooms, gas and food to incidentals like Aspirin and laundry fees.

Both Knight and Smart were allowed to gather receipts and other documents to account for the overages. While Knight was able to identify all expenses aside from less than $1,000, Smart could not account for "tens of thousands" in spending, according to the report authored by General Counsel and Vice President for Human Resources Rashidah Hasan.

A celebrated coach who led the school's teams to numerous championships and sent several athletes to the U.S. Olympics, he resigned abruptly after being questioned in October.

Smart declined to be interviewed when reached at his Roselle home Thursday morning, saying he would need to consult with an attorney before commenting. His salary as of June 2015, according to state pension records, was $56,376.

The subpoenas mark the latest wrinkle in a turbulent few weeks for the Newark-based community college of about 18,000 students following the March 25 suspensions of both Hasan and President Gale Gibson.

The reasons for Hasan's removal remain unclear, but Gibson's attorney revealed Wednesday that she has been accused of overstepping her authority to block other employees from lodging complaints or otherwise communicating with the school's board of trustees — accusations she claims arose only after she raised concerns over apparent financial irregularities.

Hasan's report, finalized in January, attributed the missing funds largely to a "total disregard" for internal controls and glaring lack of oversight throughout both the athletic department and the school's upper ranks.

"While no employee charged with the duty of financial oversight was aware of any accounting irregularities, they neither reviewed, assessed, recommended nor revised any existing policies or procedures," it reads.

Many of those named in the report, however, have characterized it as a fabrication designed to defame the college and its employees.

"It's a smear," Joyce Harley, the school's vice president for administration and finance, said in a Monday phone interview.

"I believe this is an effort to obfuscate and deflect from other issues that are facing the college, which is the suspension of the president and the general counsel."

According to Gibson's attorney Alan Zegas, she and Hasan recommended to the board one week before their suspensions that several employees, including Vice President for Administration and Finance Joyce Harley, be either terminated or otherwise disciplined for their roles in the scandal. None of the recommended action has been taken in the weeks that followed.

The records sought by the state, including documentation of athletic department travel expenses and credit card use, are already in the process of being compiled, according to Yamba, and should be delivered by the end of the month.

"My hope is that we'll produce them, present them fully and then we can take it from there," he said.

Attorney General spokesman Peter Aseltine said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.

Hasan's report states that Yamba — a president emeritus who oversaw Essex County College from 1980 to 2010 — authorized the credit card accounts in 2009, though he said Wednesday that only the president was permitted to have a school-issued credit card throughout most of his tenure.

Yamba added that cards were revoked from all athletic department employees and other workers since the fall, but admitted the subpoenas presented yet another bump in the road toward normalcy for students and faculty alike.

"We all care about the school," he said. "My primary focus is to make sure things are going on, the students are learning. These things will run their course and we'll find out what the eventual action is going to be."

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