Leader of Council on Black Minnesotans fired

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 23, 2011 - 11:16 PM

A state inquiry found that Lester Collins, who ran the Council on Black Minnesotans, had misused funds and resources.

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Lester Collins said he is willing to repay challenged expenditures to the council.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Lester Collins, longtime executive director of the state Council on Black Minnesotans, was fired last week by the council's board after a state investigation found that he had rented vehicles for work but used them for personal trips, defying repeated directives by the state Legislative Auditor.

Collins' termination, after more than 20 years at the helm of the agency, capped a growing rift within the board, which has been plagued by major turnover in recent years.

Regina Seabrook, the board chair, resigned two weeks ago.

In an interview this week, she called the internal operations of the council "a big mess" which she had not anticipated when she was named to the board six months ago. She said she lacked the time to correct the problems, but said she also would have voted to fire Collins had she stayed on.

A report on Collins, conducted by an independent investigator hired by the state Department of Administration, found that, in one case, Collins put 3,196 miles on a rental car, paid for by the council, from March 22 to April 21.

Collins, who made $77,708 in 2010, was unable to document how the car was used because he had not kept a mileage log, although he had been ordered to do so in 2001 and in 2008 by the Legislative Auditor, the investigator wrote.

The investigation also found that Collins improperly authorized use of council funds to buy food for council meetings and events, in violation of state policy and despite warnings from the Department of Administration and the Legislative Auditor.

George Ogbonna, the council's acting chair, said he believes the vote to oust Collins was 10-0 with one abstention.

In addition to the violations, Ogbonna said, Collins did not inform the board of upcoming legislation that would affect black people and was not forthcoming about what he was doing.

"People were so disgruntled that they just resigned or walked away, and we did not have a full board to make critical decisions," he said.

Collins suggested to an investigator that the Enterprise car agency might have made a typo in recording 3,106 miles.

"I don't think they looked at my side of the story comprehensively," he said. He said there was "no intended misuse" of expenditures although "for the most part ... I never kept a log."

He said he kept a record of appointments on his calendar, however. "I was doing the job" and "very dedicated in doing so."

He said he did not use hundreds of hours of vacation and many hours of sick time. But he said he was prepared to reimburse the council any funds he owed. He said the food expenses were incurred at public meetings over the dinner hour when community members expected to be fed.

Sue Wickham, human resources director at the Department of Administration, said her department hired Michelle M. Soldo, an outside consultant, to investigate Collins' activities. After the report was issued, Wickham told the board that discharging a staff member would be standard procedure in this situation but said that it was the board's decision.

The council has a 13-member board, appointed by the governor, and a mission to provide individuals of African descent with equal access to state services and programs. With a $300,000 annual budget and a small staff, the council provides research and referral services and advises the governor, as well as the Legislature and other state agencies.

There are also state councils representing other minority groups.

Some in the black community question the Black Council's work.

"I can't think of anything they have really done that's shown effectiveness," said Tracey Williams Dillard, publisher of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a black newspaper. "I think Mr. Collins is a very nice person. I just don't think he was strong enough to be the advocate that the black community needs."

Ron Edwards, a veteran civil rights activist said, "I don't think [the council] has been effective for a long time." He said the state should have moved sooner to monitor the council and to oust Collins.

But Nathaniel Khaliq, a former president of the St. Paul NAACP, said he was "disappointed and saddened" by Collins' ouster.

"The brother has given his life to the community and also to the council. ... He was someone that we counted on to be there and represent our best interests at the state." Khaliq said that some board members were on a mission to discredit the council and Collins.

Collins said his achievements include developing legislation to protect children and keep them in their family-based homes. "Out of this office came the statewide [Martin Luther King] celebration for the state that I have also served as chair [of] for the last 15 years," he said.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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