- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

A D.C. labor lawyer has exercised formidable influence in shaping the University of the District of Columbia’s leadership, which is the subject of a city ethics probe into favoritism in UDC’s high-paying executive hires.

Edmund D. Cooke Jr., a partner in the D.C. law firm of Winston & Strawn, helped his close friend William L. Pollard last year acquire his $200,000-a-year job as president of the District’s only public institution of higher learning. Mr. Cooke also helped Ernest Jolly last year secure the school’s No. 2 job of executive vice president, which boasts a $131,080 annual salary.

Mr. Pollard last month hired Mr. Cooke’s wife, Wilhelmina M. Reuben-Cooke, to fill the school’s No. 3 job of provost and vice president of academic affairs, which offers a $137,000 salary. The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance is investigating whether Mr. Pollard violated ethics laws in hiring Mrs. Reuben-Cooke, who The Washington Times first reported July 11 apparently lacks the requisite education and experience for the post.

Mr. Cooke did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment for this story.

Mr. Cooke, a University of Michigan Law School graduate and an Air Force captain during the Vietnam War, rose to prominence in the D.C. legal community as a specialist in labor and government relations after a four-year stint teaching law at Syracuse University that ended in 1992.

In 1995, he became a partner at Winston & Strawn, one of the oldest law firms in the United States, with headquarters in Chicago and offices located in major cities, including the District, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Geneva, Paris and London.

Mr. Cooke’s status as a high-profile black labor lawyer was confirmed two years ago when the Coca-Cola Company named him to the task force overseeing the company’s compliance with a $192 million settlement of a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit brought by Coca-Cola employees.

But he achieved notable influence at the university through his work as president of the UDC Coalition, an incorporated organization he helped found in 1997 to promote the land-grant university and act as an independent advocate for UDC in its dealings with the D.C. Council and Congress.

His coalition work and close relationship with Reginald E. Gilliam Jr., the UDC board of trustees member who headed the search for the school president, added considerable weight to Mr. Cooke’s recommendation of Mr. Pollard for the school’s top job, according to UDC officials and coalition members familiar with the board’s hiring of Mr. Pollard.

Mr. Gilliam could not be reached for comment.

In a brief telephone interview with The Times last week, Mr. Cooke said he has known Mr. Jolly from working with him on the Executive Leadership Council and Foundation, a D.C.-based association of black senior executives of Fortune 500 companies. Mr. Jolly served as its board chairman and president between 1996 and 2001.

“I knew his skills, and I recommended him,” said Mr. Cooke, who declined further comment.

A university official familiar with Mr. Jolly’s hiring said Mr. Cooke promoted him as a “real bulldog” in business management who would run UDC’s day-to-day operations for Mr. Pollard in the newly created position of executive vice president.

Mr. Pollard, Mr. Jolly and Mrs. Reuben-Cooke did not return calls seeking comment.

Mr. Pollard has weathered criticism this year from faculty, students and the D.C. Council over his spending priorities and his hiring of friends for high-paying jobs at the school, which in past years has been plagued by financial mismanagement, poor academic performance and accreditation concerns.

During the previous decade, Mr. Cooke and his wife worked as law professors at Syracuse University, where Mr. Pollard was the dean of the school of social work. The Cookes and the Pollards have been friends for at least a decade.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., chairman of UDC’s board of trustees, has said Mr. Cooke recommended Mr. Pollard when the trustees were searching for a new president, adding that Mr. Cooke also recommended other candidates.

UDC Coalition members said their group offered three names to the presidential search committee, but some members recalled only submitting Mr. Pollard’s name based solely on Mr. Cooke’s recommendation.

“We pretty much went with Mr. Cooke’s suggestion,” said a coalition member. “We respected his judgment.”

Coalition members said Mr. Cooke’s role in the hiring of UDC leaders did not faze them until his wife was hired as provost this year. Mrs. Reuben-Cooke’s hiring has prompted coalition members and university officials to question the selection process.

Mrs. Reuben-Cooke holds a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School and worked for 18 months as an associate dean for academic affairs at the Syracuse University College of Law. The bulk of her professional experience is as a law professor at Syracuse.

UDC’s national advertisement for provost candidates noted that the job requires a doctoral degree or its equivalent and an established record as a senior academic administrator.

The UDC Coalition was a “well-intended group until things went bad with this [job] search,” said a coalition member who asked not to be identified.

Some UDC boosters say the coalition is unraveling because of Mr. Cooke’s influence in the school’s executive office suites.

Another coalition member said Mrs. Reuben-Cooke’s hiring “muddied the waters” for future coalition involvement in university affairs.

“I wish she would just step down. It would be a much better for the university,” said the member who also asked not to be identified.

The group expects to meet next month to discuss its goals and direction.

“That there are people who are discouraged with the way it has turned out surprises me a great deal,” said coalition member Helen Barnhill, a business management consultant.

Mrs. Barnhill said she has a personal relationship with the Cookes and considers Mrs. Reuben-Cooke a good choice for provost.

Mrs. Barnhill said she was not aware of Mr. Cooke having “untoward influence” in the hiring of Mr. Pollard, Mr. Jolly or Mrs. Reuben-Cooke. “The fact that he knows somebody doesn’t mean that he influenced,” she said.

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