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Florida A&M Board Signs off on probe of $239 million gift

Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson on Wednesday took responsibility and apologized for a controversy that involved the school accepting — then ultimately rescinding — a $239 million donation after questions arose about its legitimacy.

During a nearly two-hour meeting Wednesday, frustrated members of the university’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted to open an investigation into the failed donation and the process that led up to its announcement at a May 4 graduation ceremony.“I take full responsibility for this matter and the ensuing fallout,” Robinson told the trustees.

Fallout from the donation that Robinson said would have amounted to more than $100 million above what the school currently has in its endowment included Wednesday’s resignation of Shawnta Friday-Stroud, the vice president of Florida A&M ’s non-profit fundraising foundation who also served as vice president of university advancement.

The donation was supposed to go to the Florida A&M University Foundation, Inc. from The Isaac Batterson Family 7th Trust, with the trust’s representative Gregory Gerami announcing the donation alongside Robinson and other school officials during the commencement ceremony.

The donation, which Gerami said during the ceremony had been in the works for six months, was unknown to trustees before it was revealed with a giant check.

Robinson, who said Wednesday that the deal with Gerami was canceled, told the trustees that he ignored “warning signs” about what would have been a record contribution to the historically Black university.

“I saw in this unprecedented gift the potential to serve our students and our athletic programs in ways unimaginable at that time. It would truly be transformational, I believed. I wanted it to be real and ignored the warning signs along the way. There was no personal gain, but the impact on our students and our university would have been extraordinary,” Robinson said.

Board of Trustees Chairwoman Kristin Harper was among the board members who expressed frustration during Wednesday’s meeting.

“As chair of this board, I — nor my fellow trustees, nor the FAMU Foundation — should have been caught by surprise with a public announcement of a gift of this magnitude. I accept your apology, Mr. President, because I should have never been put on the spot or used for a convenient photo or video op, or a gift that I knew nothing about. I fully support your decision to cease this transaction,” Harper said, who was photographed with Gerami and Robinson.

The $239 million gift agreement, made public by the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper, also included an additional $61 million that would have been given to the school over a ten-year period.

The gift was based on 14 million shares of stock “of intrinsic value” worth “at least” $239 million from an unidentified company, according to the agreement. Gerami is the CEO and director of Texas-based hemp company Batterson Farms Corporation, which sells products such as hemp plastic, hemp wood and hydroponics growing systems, according to its website.

Questions arose about the legitimacy of the money’s source after the donation was announced. The concerns were compounded amid reports that Gerami had previously pledged a large donation to Coastal Carolina University that the school ultimately rejected.

Trustees on Wednesday repeatedly questioned whether officials involved with the Gerami deal followed the school’s processes and procedures for accepting donations.

“We don’t know who did what and when it happened. It is my opinion that we need somebody who’s completely free of involvement with the university to conduct an outside investigation,” trustee Belvin Perry, a retired judge, said.

The board unanimously agreed Wednesday to hire an external firm to conduct the probe, which will include an audit examining the university’s compliance with policies and financial controls. The board also gave the go-ahead to produce a report that would suggest corrective actions and best practices.

While agreeing to move ahead with the inquiry, trustees received little details about the events leading up to what trustee Kenward Stone called a “really disappointing” result.

“This should not have happened. And in light of that, we need to get the facts. Not play around with this. Not do anything that makes everybody else feel good. Because this is uncomfortable. I’m upset that I have to sit here and be doing this right now, with all it took was normal due diligence,” Deveron Gibbons, who serves as vice chairman of the board, said during the meeting.

Ryan Dailey – News Service of Florida