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Dennis Black at center of investigation over UB spending

Dennis R. Black was the most recognizable face of the University at Buffalo for years, both on campus and off.

As UB vice president, he oversaw university life and services, interacted regularly with students and kept a constant presence in the broader community. He led back-to-back United Way campaign drives in 2012 and 2013, helping raise more than $28 million from tens of thousands of donors. And he was slated to take over as chairman of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra board this year.

But Black’s tight knit with UB and the Buffalo community – woven over decades in leadership posts in some of the area’s best known institutions - unraveled quickly and mysteriously this summer. His abrupt and unexplained departure, following a meeting in July with UB President Satish K. Tripathi, stunned many on campus, where Black generally was well regarded and viewed as a capable administrator and university asset.

The university repeatedly declined to comment on Black’s resignation, but The Buffalo News has learned that Black is at the center of an investigation into hundreds of thousands of dollars of questionable expenditures at UB.

Sources familiar with the investigation by the state Inspector General’s Office and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office told The News that Black resigned shortly after he was questioned about the expenditures. No charges have been filed, but authorities are in the process of determining whether the expenditures were proper.

Black, who recently relocated with his wife to Mount Pleasant, S.C., near Charleston, denied deliberately misusing university money. But he said university officials raised questions in the spring about whether “years of expenses” under his purview had been properly authorized and documented.

Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. declined to comment on whether his office was investigating. The Inspector General’s Office also declined to comment, as did UB administrators.

But three sources with knowledge of the investigation confirmed the agencies are looking into how Black spent funds tied to the Faculty-Student Association, also known as Campus Dining & Shops. The investigation seeks to determine whether the expenditures were appropriate and properly authorized. Investigators are examining expenditures of $250,000 to $600,000 – an amount that could change as the investigation progresses, sources said. Black, who is a lawyer, has not been questioned by law enforcement and has not hired a defense attorney, he said.

The FSA is among several non-profit corporations affiliated with the university. UB and other public universities create such affiliate entities to help generate revenue and to run programs unencumbered by restrictions that often accompany the use of state funds. At UB, the association is a nearly $40 million-per-year operation, with more than 700 employees and net revenues of $3.5 million, according to its latest tax returns.

Black acknowledged that, following a financial review, years of expenses in his areas of responsibility “were deemed unauthorized or not properly documented.”

‘Correctable errors’

Black also admitted to being “excessively careless” in some of his administration of university life and services, which includes campus housing, dining, student affairs, police and a host of other departments.

For decades, the non-profit affiliates never had sought presidential approvals for expenses, Black said. But this past spring, he said, the university determined that those approvals had, in fact, been required.

“As a result, years of expenses, including those in support of community engagement and organizations were called into question. In addition, travel and hospitality expenses in many of our areas were also subjected to approvals that had not been obtained in advance over the years,” Black said in an email.

“The new policies reflected adherence to state practices, but years of expenses were deemed unauthorized or not properly documented,” he said. “In addition, expenses that we had taken on at the request of previous presidents were determined unauthorized because approvals to continue those expenses had not been sought from the current president.”

Sources with knowledge of the investigation said Black used UB funds to make charitable gifts in his name and to pay for travel expenses for his wife.

Said one source: “It is frustrating to uncover the fact that this has been transpiring for years without any kind of oversight. Dennis Black was the check and balance.”

Black, whose 2015 UB salary was $287,385, characterized the university’s audit findings as “process and reimbursement issues” related to expenses over a three-year period totaling “in the neighborhood of $15,000” for travel, meals and accommodations,” he said.

Black said he paid the money back.

“We’re talking hundreds and thousands here, not hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was an audit. Reimbursement was made,” he said. “If there were errors made, they were correctable errors.”

Black said he wasn’t aware of any investigation into hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenditures.

“I don’t know anything about anything of that size and scope,” he said. “That’s crazy talk. I don’t know anything about dollars like that.”

Abrupt exit

A graduate of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, Black earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from UB and began his career at the university in 1978. He was appointed a vice president in 2010.

Black’s natural gregariousness helped him connect with thousands of students over the years. He was in the words of one faculty member a “larger than life” presence on campus.

“He was a real advocate for students,” said Dr. Philip L. Glick, professor of surgery, pediatrics and management and chairman of the UB Faculty Senate. “He was a servant leader to the university for 40 years.”

The circumstances of Black’s departure remain a troubling enigma to people on and off campus. “What is going on?” asked The UB Spectrum, a student newspaper, in an editorial earlier this semester. “No parties, no long goodbyes. Even Black’s biography rapidly was wiped off the UB website,” the editorial continued.

By many accounts, Black was a “go-to” administrator who relished opportunities to represent the university at functions. He was a gifted public speaker, and he usually was the first contact new UB students had with the upper echelons of university administration, giving candid and often humorous talks at freshmen orientation sessions each summer.

In the broader local community, Black was as widely known as the UB presidents under whom he served. He served at various times on the boards of Hilbert College, Buffalo Prep, the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and the BPO, where he had been in line to assume the chairmanship in September. Instead, he left the board.

At the United Way, Black twice led campaigns that raised in excess of $14 million, and he had continued to be very involved in the organization, along with his wife, Leilani, until this past summer, said Michael Weiner, United Way president and chief executive officer.

“It was in their blood,” said Weiner.

Weiner described Black as confident, assertive and trustworthy.

“He has the utmost respect for people and rules and policies,” said Weiner, who was caught off guard by the suddenness of Black’s exit from UB and from the area, given his extensive involvement in the community. “That’s a big, quality loss. You never want to lose people like this,” he said.

On campus, some of Black’s former colleagues and associates were reluctant to believe he would be involved in any wronging.

“I would say this may be a matter of bookkeeping or a regulatory process. It could be innocent errors,” said one staff member who asked to remain anonymous. “People are cynical, but I would have a hard time believing that Dennis would have any malice in his heart.”

“I hope there’s nothing there, I truly do, because I really like Dennis. He’s a very personable guy,” said another source who teaches at the university. “But if you’re stealing, you’re stealing.”

Subordinate charged

In September, Dean Yerry, a retired maintenance supervisor who worked under Black at UB, was charged with rigging the bids on $1 million in dormitory painting contracts, in exchange for a $100,000 kickback. The charges against Yerry were “the tip of the iceberg in terms of shady things that have happened with facilities and contracts at UB,” according to an employee who said he and co-workers were questioned by investigators and auditors.

The state Inspector General’s Office also investigated Yerry, who is being prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office.

“Even if Dennis was in no way involved, this happened with one of his people. This happened on his watch. He could just be a bad administrator. We have heard that, one day after Dennis was questioned about Dean’s activities, Dennis resigned from his job, with no explanation,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified.

Black admitted the charges against Yerry did not reflect well on him.

“That certainly was on my watch. While I didn’t have any direct involvement in that, I’m the person ultimately responsible,” he said.

‘Non-public life’

Black said he is proud of his work at UB.

“Having worked hard for decades, having a good financial team around me, and meeting with the president every week, I am deeply disappointed that my departure and these issues are the outcomes,” he said. “I did many things carefully, provided care to many, and was obviously excessively careless as well on some things, which I certainly regret.”

As for the clean break from Western New York, Black said he and his wife simply decided to start a new chapter in their life together. They’ve had a second home in South Carolina for years and wanted to spend more time there.

“We had 40 years of a very public life in Western New York, and we were looking for a quieter, non-public life here,” he said.

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