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Pickering, College Board investigating Southern Miss

HATTIESBURG — The office of State Auditor Stacey Pickering and the state College Board are looking into whether the University of Southern Mississippi violated state law in the purchase and distribution of 700 tablets in July and August as part of a pilot program.

Auditor’s office spokeswoman Lisa Shoemaker told the Hattiesburg American College Board officials have notified the auditor’s office of the possible violations.

An internal audit at USM discovered a potential problem in late October.

“I’m very, very, very saddened by the situation,” USM president Martha Saunders said yesterday. “I’m saddened by the fact that I had employees that have been caught up in this.”

So far, three school employees have been placed on paid administrative leave, including former provost Bob Lyman, who resigned his position last week to join the faculty ranks. Also placed on leave are chief information officer Homer Coffman, who heads the school’s iTech division and Mike Herndon, director of procurement and contract services.

USM paid Blackboard $432,000 to purchase the tablets, in addition to other mobile and design services. One question is whether USM followed state law, which requires public bids for purchases more than $50,000 by state agencies.

There also is the question of whether the Blackboard contract violated College Board policy, with the $432,000 contract exceeding the $250,000 threshold requiring board approval.

College Board spokeswoman Caron Blanton said the contract never came before the board.

Saunders said she was unaware of the contract, stating that it comes from an area — iTech — that does not cross her desk.

“I was not unaware of the program,” Saunders said. “I assumed that all the details had been handled properly.”

Because the tablets are state property, officials have asked students to bring them in to be inventoried through the end of November. The students, who were originally told the tablets were theirs to keep, must now return them upon graduation.

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