By Danny DeCristofaro
Former Brookdale Community College President Peter F. Burnham took thousands of dollars for his own personal interests instead of putting it toward improving Brookdale, the board of trustees announced last April, noting that a lawsuit against Burnham would be filed.
While no lawsuit has been filed, the board’s announcement came after two months of controversy revolving around Burnham’s compensation package, his spending, and spending within his office.
The fury began with a Feb. 7, 2011 announcement that tuition would increase $10 per credit. This prompted the county Board of Freeholders to raise concerns about spending at Brookdale and investigate Burnham’s compensation. All of which led to Burnham “retiring” after more than 20 years in a terse March 8 letter and the tuition hike being rolled back.
In February 2011, Burnham sent out a memo to inform about a $6 million reduction in county operating support for Brookdale.
That same day Burnham and the board of trustees announced the 8.2 percent tuition hike.
News of the rising tuition fees sent the freeholders searching for places where cuts could be made to prevent the tuition hike and a scrutiny of expenses in the president’s office. As concerns grew, Burnham reversed the tuition hike and decided to reduce his own compensation as he announced in his memo on Feb 24. Two days later, the board of trustees met and rolled back the tuition increase.
On Feb. 25, 2011, the Brookdale community became aware of Burnham’s full compensation package as revealed by an Asbury Park Press news story. His package included a country club membership, a Ford Expedition purchased by the college for $42,815, a $1,500 monthly housing allowance, up to $40,000 a year in college tuition for his two children coming to $267,676 thus far, and $225,000 worth of bonuses.
But the news didn’t end with public awareness of Burnham’s negotiated package.
Further investigation into the spending from the president’s office led to Burnham being placed on administrative leave without pay March 3 and an investigation was officially launched March 5.
The prosecutor’s office was called in and an audit was performed. George Fehr, vice president of business and finance was also placed on administrative leave without pay, as he approved many of the questioned expenditures.
The board named Dr. William Toms as interim president for the time being. Toms has acted as president from March 3 through today.
John Cantalupo, former attorney for Brookdale Community College's board of trustees became the third high-profile person in this dispute as well. Cantalupo responded by cutting ties with the school when he resigned May 13, 2011.
On April 14, about a month into the investigation, Brookdale’s board of trustees announced a plan to sue Burnham for the repayment of inappropriately reimbursed expenses. The audit, which was also released on this day revealed reason for the board’s action as the audit contained the spending in the president’s office, displaying several policy violations.
The audit suggested that suing was necessary to reimburse the college for not only funds that were wrongfully compensated to Burnham, but also for all the remaining benefits that were paid for in advance before Burnham retired. The possibility of suing Fehr was also discussed.
More than 10 different violation expenditures that Burnham was involved in such as charging personal expenses to the college-issued credit cards and the purchasing of alcoholic beverages were charged to the college according to an audit. Burnham sometimes flew first-class for work related trips even with a policy which states that a college employee must fly coach whenever possible.
He consistently charged clothing purchases, rental cars, and other personal expenses to the college card, the audit said. He also had $14,000 worth of expenses issued to the college at the Navesink Country Club, all of which the board found questionable.
The audit showed that Burnham was responsible for charging $4,984.63 of personal expenses to college credit cards between July 1, 2008 and March 3, 2011, the day he was placed on leave.
No lawsuit has ever been filed. Board chairman Josh Elkes has recently stated that a decision to file suit will not be made until the county prosecutor’s office has completed a criminal investigation into Burnham’s spending.
In sharp contrast to a year ago, at the Board of Trustees meeting on Feb. 9 it was announced that tuition will be decreasing $3 per credit, effective July 1.
Bringing the year to an appropriate close, on Feb. 21 the Board hired Dr. Maureen Murphy to become the next Brookdale president, effective July 1.