Alumna Asks University of Michigan to Investigate Fraud Claims Involving Her Middle East Progam

August 10, 2020, 12:17 AM by  Allan Lengel

President Mark Schlissel

In 2009, attorney Margaret Cone, former executive assistant to Mayor Coleman A. Young and past film industry lobbyist, was inspired by President Obama’s call for improved relations with the U.S. and the Muslim world.

So she secured a $2-million grant from the United Arab Emirates to fund what she called the World Leadership Program, intended to build a partnership between the next generation of religious leaders and scholars from the Muslim Middle East and their Christian and Jewish counterparts in America, as she describes it.

Eleven years later, Cone, a University of Michigan graduate, is asking the school to investigate her allegations that U-M officials defrauded her student foreign exchange program of $300,000 in grant money and engaged in misogyny. 

After the formal request at a virtual Board of Regents meeting last month, she emailed a seven-page letter asking President Mark Schlissel and the eight regents to investigate the alleged fraud she says the university has covered up for years through denials and protracted court battles. Fraud at the university goes beyond her case, she alleges.

'Deny, Defame, Delay'

“Time and time again,” Cone says, “when faced with serious allegations of criminal activity, ethical wrongdoing and sex discrimination, the university uses the same playbook. Stonewall. Deny. Defame. Delay. Then declare the matter resolved.”

She wants a public apology and restitution for at least some money she spent to salvage the program. She also wants U-M to audit other grants for foreign programs.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald tells Deadline Detroit: “The university denies any wrongdoing.” She has not received an official reponse from the university.

The program Cone dreamed of founding had a promising start. She persuaded Al-Azhar Uniuversity, a leading Islamic institution in Egypt, to participate.

And then she nailed down a commitment to help run the program through the university with Professor Sherman Jackson, who no longer is with the school, and two others -- professor Mark Tessler, then vice provost of international affairs, and school administrator Dave Howell.

As the plan moved forward, she said, she tried to exercise oversight, but the trio ignored her calls and emails. “They tried to demean me and called me difficult.”

'Tame and Domesticate'

Later in a court deposition, Jackson testified that university officials decided there was a need to "tame and domesticate" Cone, which she found sexist.

When the program showed signs of problems, the UAE demanded the remaining money back.


In fact, she says, she learned that the men never got approval from the university to host the program at U-M's International Institute, as intended.

So, the program shifted to the University of Michigan Center for Political Studies – Institute of Social Research in Ann Arbor, where Howell is an administrator. The center is affiliated with U-M, but is independent and independently funded. The $300,000 for the program was transferred there and the funds were no longer under university scrutiny, Cone alleges.

She alleges the men never did any work for the $300,000. Specifically, she alleged in court papers that Tessler personally pocketed $17,660 and Jackson got $74,667. And she was trying to determine how much Howell got and what happened to the remainder of the $300,000. 

All three men did not respond to Deadline Detroit requests for comment.

Scramble to make it happen

Cone said she ended up putting up more than $400,000 of her money to salvage the program, some of which she got back from the Saudis.

Al-Azhar University in Cairo was founded in the 10th Century.

The leadership program was for 16 Middle East and 16 American students.

In summer of 2010, 16 graduate students from Al-Ahzar University in Cairo, Egypt – arrived for the program in Ann Arbor. By then, she was scrambling to salvage things. She put them up in apartments and arranged for them to attend an off-campus language program in Ann Arbor. Then she held a two-week leadership program for the 32 students at Georgetown University, which agreed to help.

After failing to get the university to addreess problems she identified, Cone decided to sue. An initial cased in state court was tossed on a technicality. She then sued in 2018 in U.S. District Court in Detroit, alleging breach of contract and fraud.

The university defended the trio of staff members, arguing that the statute of limitations had expired and individuals can’t be liable if they act on behalf of the university and follow its policy. In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling dismissed the case.

“The courts dismissed my case based on procedural grounds,” Cone told Deadline Detroit. “The University knows full well the courts never considered the illegal conduct I detailed in my submissions to the Regents.”

Some of that conduct by the officials, she alleged in court, included providing false documentation for payments and altering emails that were introduced as court evidence. She also alleged they violated university policies and rules in order to get payments from the programs. 

In her letter to the U-M president and the regents, she attached an affidavit from former FBI agent Kevin Knierim, who is the co-founder of a digital forensic and cyber investigation firm, who concluded that a chain of emails was fabricated. 

'Similar to Money Laundering'

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, responding to Cone’s request that the university investigate, told Deadline Detroit:

“I do hope you know that earlier this year [February], and after six years of litigation in both state and federal court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, affirmed the dismissal of all Ms. Cone’s claims. I’m not sure there is much more to say.”

That response disappoints Cone.

“Perhaps he can answer how the three officials paid themselves $300,000 for administering a program they abandoned. And why did the University hide their payments by using a method similar to traditional money laundering.”

She also questions the university spending money on legal fees to fight her.

“Why did UM shield these men?” she asks. “For what? To protect the money Tessler and Jackson stole? Frankly, I’m at a loss to understand why U-M made the decision to defend their conduct and not champion me.”

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