Ga. Baptist executive committee approves aid for Brewton-Parker

ATLANTA (BP)--The executive committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention has approved a financial plan to help Brewton­Parker College settle a federal lawsuit which claims that the convention-related school defrauded government financial aid programs in recent years by awarding grants to unqualified students and permitting other irregularities.

Attorneys representing the convention and the 2,000-student college in Mount Vernon, Ga., are seeking to finalize an out­of­court settlement agreement for an amount still to be determined.

The Georgia executive committee, in its March 10 meeting in Atlanta, agreed to allow Brewton­Parker to utilize significant monies from the convention's Capital Improvements and Endowment Program (CIEP) funds designated for the school and held by the Georgia Baptist Foundation to pay toward settlement of the lawsuit. Additional required funds would be sought in matching gifts from individual donors.

Also, the 1997 CIEP budget was amended to permit the budgeted amount of $105,411.25 designated for capital improvements to be applied toward debt retirement. The action was designed to relieve Brewton-Parker of its current cash flow burden that has resulted in a revised operating budget, a streamlined administration and the elimination of non-instructional positions.

Brewton Parker's president, Y. Lynn Holmes, resigned last November, but an announcement at the time made no mention of the lawsuit against the college and several of its administrators.

The lawsuit was initiated more than a year ago by a former assistant financial aid director at the college, filed under the federal False Claims Act, commonly known as the whistle-blower law. The federal government joined the lawsuit Oct. 20.

The federal complaint could result in Brewton-Parker owing the federal government up to $25.2 million in reimbursement and penalties, nearly twice the college's $12.7 million budget, according to an article in the Oct. 15 issue of Southeast Journal, a regional publication of The Wall Street Journal.

The Georgia Baptist Convention also was named as a defendant in the initial lawsuit but was not named in the government's case, according to news reports.

Holmes, a Brewton-Parker alumnus, was the college's president 14 years. He will continue in a teaching role, according to a news release issued by the college last November.

In the initial lawsuit, Martha Faw, former assistant financial aid director, claimed Brewton-Parker intentionally administered improper government funds to students for at least 11 years. She also claimed the college terminated her when she identified and attempted to correct the misappropriation. Holmes denied the charges but admitted errors were made regarding the distribution of financial aid. However, he blamed the errors on carelessness, overworked staff and outdated computer programs and said the college has taken steps to correct the problems. Financial aid director Cecelia Hightower was removed from her position in August 1997 and the college has contracted with a new accounting firm.

College officials also denied claims by Faw that student athletes were favored in the misappropriation of financial aid. This comes on the heels of the college's baseball team winning the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics title last year.

Another complaint, according to the Wall Street Journal publication, is that Brewton-Parker kept aid funds that should have been returned to the federal government when prisoners dropped out of classes taught by the college in Georgia prisons.

Holmes was quoted in The Christian Index, Georgia Baptists' newsjournal, as saying that when Brewton-Parker officials became aware of the irregularities they "notified the proper government agencies. The college immediately hired an outside auditing firm to review the allegations and they found no credence to them. We will continue to work toward resolution of the matter and continue on with our main priority of providing a quality education in a Christian environment."

In other business during their March 10 meeting, Georgia executive committee agreed to allow its ad hoc "membership" committee to expand its scope in looking at what it means to be a cooperating Georgia Baptist Convention church.

The committee originally was charged with looking at membership requirements related to two issues: churches that support homosexual behavior and churches involved in non-biblical charismatic activity.

"We have had two meetings so far and we need the blessing of the executive committee to expand the responsibilities of the committee to develop a document with parameters for what it means to be a cooperating church," said Gerald Harris, chairman of the membership committee and pastor of Eastside Baptist Church, Marietta.

Current Georgia convention membership requirements center around cooperation through missions giving.

Harris said the committee would have a report for the September executive committee meeting.

J. Robert White, executive director of the convention, said he did not see anything out of line in the committee's request. He did not feel their findings would change the existing parameters of Baptist doctrine or affect local church polity except for the two specific issues previously stated.

In other business, White announced that Georgia had surpassed Texas for the first time as the leading giver in both percentage and dollar amount to the SBC portion of the Cooperative Program. From Sept. 1, 1997, (the start of the current budget year) through Feb. 28, 1998, Georgia Baptists had sent $7,663,911 to the SBC Executive Committee for SBC causes.

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