In the last two years of his presidency, former Kentucky State University head M. Christopher Brown II spent more than $73,000 on his university-issued credit card, a majority of which went toward flights and hotels. Destinations included the Bahamas, Las Vegas, California and Cancun among others.
The spending took place as the school’s finances were hurtling toward what newly appointed Chief Financial Officer Greg Rush called a “$15 million problem.” According to Rush’s presentation to state legislators last week, the school anticipates a $15.7 million shortfall for this fiscal year.
The Council on Postsecondary Education, led by former KSU interim President Aaron Thompson, is leading a full review of the university because of the financial problems revealed to the public shortly after Brown’s resignation on July 20.
Credit card statements obtained via an open records request show that Brown paid for 67 flights, 72 hotel stays and 22 rental cars or taxi rides using his university-funded card. The majority of the remaining expenses were payments to ride-hailing app Uber, meals or eBay charges.
In responses to The State Journal, Brown insisted that 100% of his credit card charges were for university purposes. Brown’s contract governs reimbursement for travel, but does not mention credit card expenses.
“All travel was to-and-from the business destination,” Brown wrote in an email. “All travel was made at the lowest possible coach fare and for official business.”
He added that the campus, prior to his acquiring a university credit card, used to have a travel office through which similar expenses were charged.
Brown said that a focus on the president's finances was unsurprising following the financial fallout in the wake of his resignation.
"Although narrow in focus and absent important contexts, the focus on the office of the president is often a convenient step," Brown said. "It is often said that the tallest trees catch the most wind. As the campus seeks to continue efforts toward effective outcomes and operations, it is important to seek clarity on any obstacles to best practices."
He wrote that the finance division is understaffed, thus requiring several departments to use purchasing cards in lieu of going through a purchasing office.
“Divisions have resorted to using purchasing cards for regular processes, like office supplies, that could best be coordinated by a central store and campus-wide purchasing office which I previously recommended,” Brown said.
Before March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Brown had been charging $5,641 to his card per month, averaging more than six hotel stays and six flights — most of which were roundtrip — per month.
In summer 2019, Brown charged at least $2,390 to his card for a trip to Cancun, Mexico, including a $1,339 stay at the Westin Lagunamar resort. Brown pointed out that during that trip, he visited a KSU student-athlete who played in an all-star game against a roster of Mexican football players.
A month before that trip, Brown charged $750, or 10,291 South African Rand, on a trip to Johannesburg, not including flight expenses. Brown sent The State Journal a proposal he wrote to establish a greater partnership between schools as proof of his university-related purpose there.
He also charged the university $657 for a hotel stay in the Bahamas June 11-13. Brown said he went to attend Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity’s Honours Day Convocation, and that he met with a planning group for student recruitment there. However, the convocation was slated for May, not June, according to the group’s Bahama’s chapter Facebook page and a magazine produced by the fraternity.
Domestic travel destinations included various cities in the American South, Los Angeles and Las Vegas; several flight destinations are unavailable via the credit card statements.
Brown is pastor of a church in Las Vegas. Multiple university-funded flights and one rental car trip take place with Vegas as the starting point or endpoint. Brown said at first that he did not use the university card to pay for trips to and from Vegas in order to preach on Sunday. When asked again if the school paid for trips to or from Vegas during weekends in which he preached, Brown said that he could not say with certainty.
Flights for Tymon Graham, Brown’s former chief of staff, to the same destination as Brown were expensed on Brown’s card seven times since November 2020, after a seven-month lull in spending when travel nationwide was infrequent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shortly after Brown resigned, Graham was fired by the new administration.
Brown said that he purchased Graham’s flights because he had earned Delta SkyMiles status and that if Graham flew with him on the same reservation both of them received seat upgrades to comfort or exit row.
Brown’s base salary as president was $270,000, but incentives — including a $4,030 board-approved monthly housing allowance, a $950 car allowance and a $20,000 yearly retention incentive — brought that number to more than $400,000. According to a Herald-Leader analysis of his incentives, Brown was making about $425,000 per year.
Brown regularly received positive feedback via his presidential evaluations, the school’s financial audits and more during his tenure. His years there saw growth in the school’s enrollment and overall graduation rate.
Rush, through a school spokesperson, has yet to respond to questions about the school’s policy regarding oversight of university credit cards.
He did tell legislators last week that he found no evidence of school officials using university funds for non-university expenses.
Though not included in Brown’s credit card statements, both the school and the Kentucky State University Foundation have denied State Journal open records requests for payments made for the purpose of funding Brown’s birthday parties.
In 2018 Brown posted on Twitter about his birthday party, an occasion that included the presence of rapper Rich Homie Quan.
The foundation denied a request for such information, and payments related to Brown’s travel, because it asserts its status as a non-public agency. The Attorney General’s Office opined otherwise last week. KSU General Counsel Lisa Lang denied The State Journal’s request for “records reflecting payments made for the purposes of parties” celebrating Brown’s birthday, writing that the request was not specific enough to meet state open records law requirements.
The State Journal’s request for Brown’s credit card statements was sent more than a month ago along with four other requests — emails, documents and expenses which upon review Brown called “readily available” — but Lang has thus far only submitted a response for the statements. She said at the time that the university is still reviewing its records related to the other requests.
Recently, former staff Regent Chandee Felder was fired from her university job after criticizing the school’s Board of Regents for what she characterized as inaction on the school’s financial issues. Her termination took place nearly a week after her attorney informed Lang that he was representing her “relative to the exercise of her rights under the Kentucky Whistleblower Act.”
What is allowed and what is normal?
Brown’s contract empowers him to be reimbursed for travel expenses “reasonably incurred by him for the purpose of or in connection with the performances of his duties as president.” His original and amended contracts do not mention the credit card that he began using in the summer of 2019. The contract also mentions that Brown’s spouse's travel could be reimbursed up to five times per year, though no credit card statement logs any travel attributed to her.
A State Journal open records request for additional university-issued credit card statements is pending.
During the same period that Brown used his card — from July 2019 to June 2021 — Western Kentucky President Timothy Caboni charged $50,828 to his university card. The State Journal requested all state university presidents’ credit card statements during the same period and only received WKU’s by press time; Northern Kentucky's general counsel told The State Journal that the university president does not use a school-funded credit card.
The WKU charges amount to about 69% of what Brown charged. WKU’s approved budget for this year is $375.6 million, while KSU’s is just below $50 million.
James Finkelstein, a professor emeritus at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government who studies university president contracts, said that Brown’s credit card expenses don’t place him in the “expense account scandal hall of fame,” but that they are quite high for a president of a school the size of Kentucky State. KSU had around 2,200 students enrolled per data acquired this summer.
Judith Wilde, a professor at the same university who researches with Finkelstein, suggested that best practice for such expenses would include a board of regents, or perhaps a subcommittee of the board, review of presidential expenses.
“Jim and I often say that the most important part of the job for members of the governing board of a university is the hiring of a president,” Wilde said. “However, the other key element of the job is fiduciary. The board of governors has a fiduciary responsibility for the university. A really responsible board will review the university's financial status, including such things as the expense reports of the president, on a regular basis — at least quarterly.”
Just after his resignation, Brown told HBCU Digest that the “powers that be” pinpointed financial health as a vulnerable area for him leading up to his resignation given his resignation from the presidency of Alcorn State University amid financial concerns in 2013.
“It’s just like a boxer knowing the weak side of their opponent,” Brown said. “The parties that be knew that this was a weak area. They can’t say academics aren’t up, ratings aren’t up, enrollment isn’t up. The only area that’s not fully defended is this area of fiscal oversight.”