- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

The president of University of the District of Columbia has given a $10,000 signing bonus to a family friend he hired for the school’s No. 3 job despite her lack of qualifications.

Susan D. Saunders, the university’s director of government affairs, said UDC officials authorized the $10,000 signing bonus for Wilhelmina M. Reuben-Cooke after the City Administrator’s Office, the D.C. Office of Personnel and the university’s Human Resources Department reviewed the deal.

D.C. Council member Harold P. Brazil, who called for Mrs. Reuben-Cooke’s resignation on Wednesday, said yesterday the signing bonus adds to the “appearance of favoritism” by UDC President William L. Pollard. The at-large Democrat said he didn’t know if signing bonuses are common in academia, but the deal invites more questions about the hire.

“That becomes part and parcel of the fundamental question: If she doesn’t meet the prerequisite of the job, why does she have it?” Mr. Brazil said.

Mr. Pollard hired Mrs. Reuben-Cooke as the school’s provost and vice president of academic affairs — a $137,000-a-year job for which she lacks the requisite experience and education. She started her new job Wednesday.

Mrs. Reuben-Cooke, who was a tenured law professor at Syracuse University, is married to Edmund Cooke, a District-based lawyer who helped Mr. Pollard secure his $200,000-a-year job at UDC a year ago.

Mr. Pollard did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

Mrs. Reuben-Cooke did not return telephone messages left at her home in Fairfax Station, where she has lived while teaching at Syracuse. She also did not return calls to her office at the university. A reporter for The Washington Times who visited her office twice yesterday was told she was unavailable.

The Times reported July 11 that Mrs. Reuben-Cooke has 18 months of administrative experience and lacks the doctoral degree required for her UDC job. As provost and vice president of academic affairs, she is responsible for overseeing academic programs, creating academic policy, preparing academic budgets and leading the faculty.

In addition to her six-figure salary and $10,000 signing bonus, Mrs. Reuben-Cooke was promised a tenured professorship at UDC’s David A. Clarke School of Law, which guarantees her job security regardless of her future in the administration.

Christine Poole, UDC director of human resources, declined to answer questions about the signing bonus. She said all inquiries must be submitted in writing to the university’s communications director, who was out of town yesterday.

City Administrator John A. Koskinen could not be reached for comment about the signing bonus yesterday.

Mrs. Saunders said a review of citywide signing-bonus policies found that such deals are not uncommon in the municipal government. The Department of Child and Family Services routinely awards signing bonuses, she said, and UDC has a similar community-service mission to that agency.

“This is not an extraordinary provision,” Mrs. Saunders said. “It is part of our normal course of business.”

However, only social workers receive signing bonuses in the Department of Child and Family Services. The up-front cash is used as a recruiting tool to attract licensed social workers to the relatively low-paying and unpopular job, said Randi Blank, spokeswoman for the D.C. personnel office.

Executive hires and political appointments by the mayor never receive signing bonuses, Miss Blank said, adding that Mr. Koskinen called the director of the personnel office and inquired about the signing bonus.

Licensed social workers receive a $1,000 signing bonus if they agree to work in the District for a year. They get $2,500 for a two-year contract, and the signing bonus must be refunded if the social workers break their contracts, Miss Blank said.

Mrs. Reuben-Cooke’s signing bonus “doesn’t seem to fall in with what has been done in the past at Child and Family Services,” she said.

Mrs. Saunders said the reasoning for signing bonuses is the same whether it is for a social worker or a top administrator. “You have to find someone with all the right qualifications,” she said. “You can translate that to many fields.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Brazil’s call for Mrs. Reuben-Cooke’s resignation gained support among his colleagues.

Council member Jack Evans said Mr. Brazil appears to be “on the right page,” stopping short of fully backing the resignation call until he can personally investigate the matter.

“This is the kind of stuff that is driving us crazy on the council,” said Mr. Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. “People are getting appointed, they make a lot of money, but the don’t have the qualifications. How is this happening?”

Council member Adrian M. Fenty called on Mr. Pollard to publicly answer questions about Mrs. Reuben-Cooke. The council member said he would decide where he stands on the resignation call after hearing the president’s explanation.

“There have been too many issues raised already,” the Ward 4 Democrat said. “You just can’t let it hang out there. Either the explanation will hold or it will not.”

Mr. Fenty said there can be no excuse for the signing bonus, saying any signing bonus would be a waste of taxpayer money.

“This is not big corporate America or entertainment. This is the government of a small local municipality where we don’t have extra money around to pay someone extra,” he said.

“It just doesn’t make sense for a government employee to get a signing bonus,” Mr. Fenty said. “This is public service. Either you want the job or you don’t.”

Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday said any problems at the land-grant university could be addressed by the school’s board of trustees.

The mayor intends to give the trustees time to make whatever decision they think is in the best interest of the university, said mayoral spokesman Tony Bullock.

“We are not going to jump in the middle of that,” Mr. Bullock said. “We don’t want to go in there and micromanage their operations. That would be inappropriate.”

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