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Probe into Florida A&M death uncovers possible 'financial irregularities'

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:41 AM EST, Thu December 15, 2011
FAMU drum major Robert Champion died after a November 19 football game, following a suspected hazing incident.
FAMU drum major Robert Champion died after a November 19 football game, following a suspected hazing incident.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Authorities are looking into "financial irregularities" at Florida A&M University, an official says
  • The possible fraud is unrelated to the death of student Robert Champion, the official says
  • The board of trustees chairman says the university is cooperating
  • Champion died after a football game following reports of suspected hazing

(CNN) -- Authorities in Florida looking into the unexplained death of a drum major at Florida A&M University said Wednesday the investigation has uncovered possible fraud at the school.

During the "scores of interviews" that have been conducted, "there was evidence gleaned that there were financial irregularities having to do with the band and several other components of the university," said Jerry Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The suspected fraud is not directly related to the death of Robert Champion, Bailey said.

"It became apparent (from) some of the people that we interviewed (that) the financial irregularities had to do with the band travels and other sports and administrative components of the university," he said.

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"To say it's systemic would be premature, but I will say again, it's not just isolated to this one program (band) that we're primarily dealing with today," Bailey told CNN.

His department sent letters Tuesday to the heads of the university board and the state university system to inform them that authorities have begun a separate inquiry based on the new information.

Bailey said it is "too soon to tell" how much money may be involved. Completing the investigation will take an extended time, he added.

Faculty and students are cooperating, but the department is having some difficultly in finding certain documents, he said.

In a statement Wednesday, FAMU board of trustees Chairman Solomon L. Badger III said the university could not comment, "but we are cooperating fully with this and all investigations."

Champion, 26, died after a November 19 football game following a suspected hazing incident.

He "reportedly threw up in the parking lot and started complaining of not being able to breathe," authorities said in a statement. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

No cause of death has been released.

After Champion's death, some band members said it may have been the result of a rite of passage called "crossing Bus C," the bus Champion was on after a game the night he died.

One band member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, "You have to walk from the front of the bus to the back of the bus backward while the bus is full of other band members, and you get beaten until you get to the back."

When asked what the point is, the band member replied, "For respect."

A freshman band member also plans to file a lawsuit against the school, her attorney said Tuesday.

Bria Hunter went to a hospital November 7, a week after she allegedly was beaten and nearly two weeks before Champion's death.

Hunter suffered a cracked femur, deep bone bruising and blood clots after being beaten repeatedly on the thighs, according to arrest affidavits from Tallahassee police.

Three men -- Sean Hobson, 23, Aaron Golson, 19, and James Harris, 22 -- are charged with hazing, a crime under Florida law. Hobson and Golson are charged with felony battery as well in the Hunter case.

Florida A&M's board of trustees voted last week to reprimand school President James Ammons, and the band's director, Julian White, has been placed on administrative leave while state police investigate.

Florida A&M has an anti-hazing policy.

Ammons pledged Wednesday to "root out this culture of hazing," though he declined to offer details about potential corrective actions.

"One of the things that we have found with hazing is that there is a veil of secrecy," he said. "This is a culture, not just here at Florida A&M University. It's on college and university campuses all across America."

Ammons told CNN that "our No. 1 priority is the health, safety and well-being of our students."

Some students said that they need to be part of the solution to the problem.

Alexis White said a friend on Tuesday told her he was hazed and the practice was continuing.

"No one's any more afraid than they were before," said White, indicating hazing is not limited to the marching band.

At DeKalb County School District in Georgia, where Champion once went to school, spokesman Walter Woods said Wednesday that all marching band activities have been suspended.

The suspension was ordered after the discovery of what Woods described as an "inappropriate" incident that occurred over the summer. The activities of 20 marching bands have been put on hold, with the exception of events relating to Martin Luther King Jr. Day next month, in which four bands will be allowed to participate.

The action came after the school district sent a letter to all band directors asking questions prompted by Champion's death, Woods said.

All band activities are being looked at on a case-by-case basis, he said.

CNN's Jason Carroll, John Couwels, Adam Reiss and George Howell contributed to this report.

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