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At UCA, housing perks for the well-connected 

President Hardin defends special housing for students.

click to enlarge HOME SWEET HOME: Sheffield Nelson's grandson lives at this UCA-owned home.
  • HOME SWEET HOME: Sheffield Nelson's grandson lives at this UCA-owned home.

Want special housing at the University of Central Arkansas? It doesn't hurt to know the president, Lu Hardin.

Are you a political candidate in need of a tent for a fund-raiser? UCA can help you there, too. Just ask Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker.

Allegations of favoritism in student housing and other UCA practices have been voiced by anonymous complaints in the aftermath of news stories about Hardin's pay. Hardin and other university officials have confirmed some of the tips, though they insist similar favors are equally available to others, at least if you know who to ask.

A packet of information about the incidents has been widely circulated to Arkansas media, so widely that Hardin refers to it as the “black helicopter memo.” It's a hodgepodge of complaints ranging from the mundane to topics that have been covered previously, such as the UCA Board of Trustees' 2005 decision to buy an apartment complex from a company owned by trustee Rush Harding III.

But the information about housing favors and help for Republican Sen. Baker, who's in a hot re-election campaign with Democrat Joe White of Conway, is new and rooted in fact.

UCA owns a number of houses around campus. The houses are controlled by either the college housing department or the college physical plant. Those run by the physical plant include lodging for maintenance people, coaches, and other employees. The plant also runs residences for two students: Sheffield Clark, grandson of UCA grad and former Republican gubernatorial nominee Sheffield Nelson, and Sen. Baker's son, Stephen. Neither of the houses was advertised to the general student population.

Clark said he moved into his house, a recently refurbished brown ranch, on July 5. Copies of checks provided by the college show that Clark pays $600 a month rent on the house to the physical plant.

Clark also paid the college $1,326 for fence repair with a check dated July 31 — the same day as the Times' initial inquiry about housing matters. United Fence, a North Little Rock company, originally billed the work to UCA on May 28. The actual cost of constructing the fence was $2,090. UCA physical plant director Larry Lawrence said the college had given Clark an erroneous bill based on an earlier estimate for the fence. Clark paid the balance on August 3.

Both Lawrence and Hardin were unsure of how it was decided that Clark would live in the house.

Though the physical plant does not receive payment for Stephen Baker's lodging, Baker and Hardin each said a scholarship covers rent. Baker, who has lived with his wife in the house for about a year, said he applied for residence there through the housing department. The UCA housing department employee in charge of family residences said Baker did not appear on his list of applicants for 2007, though he added that his employment began last year and that his records might not be complete. Baker said he was unaware that the college distinguishes between houses run by the housing department and those run by the physical plant.

In an interview, Hardin said the Bakers' financial arrangement is no different from that of other students who pay for housing with scholarship money. “We've had situations where married students both have scholarships for housing, which would qualify them to transfer that scholarship to a house in lieu of a married student apartment,” Hardin said. “Regardless of whether it's a married couple we know or a married couple we don't know, they will do one of two things: apply their scholarship or pay rent. It would be a major misnomer to say someone is living rent-free.”

Though Hardin conceded that Clark and Baker had an advantage in obtaining their houses because of their relatives, he said there was no wrongdoing involved.

“Are they living there because of contacts? Certainly, they'd be in a position to communicate and ask me if I know of a house,” Hardin said. “From that standpoint, yes, there's probably greater access. But do we do it for other students? The answer is an unequivocal yes. There are students with no contacts and no political ties that have a similar situation to those alleged. All they have to do is ask.” 

The Clark and Baker residences are the only current stand-alone housing for married students owned by UCA, however. The housing department sets aside three apartment buildings for family rentals. The rates for these apartments range from $395 a month for a one-bedroom to $550 a month for a three-bedroom.

Zack Stanton, son of UCA trustee Michael Stanton, also lived with his wife in a college-owned house at 120 Elizabeth St. for several months. The property was purchased in 2005 for possible VIP use, but has since been in limbo. Hardin said the younger Stanton's lodging was also free — covered by scholarship. Michael Stanton confirmed this.

Is better housing available for the politically connected? “I deny political favoritism based on the fact that I have done exactly the same thing for dozens of other students,” Hardin said. If so, those students are generally in apartments, however, not stand-alone houses.

Hardin also discussed the help UCA gave Sen. Baker by providing a tent to his campaign for a fund-raising event. “I'm staying as neutral as I can,” said Hardin of the Conway state senate race pitting the Republican Baker against Democratic challenger Joe White. Hardin said he had no personal involvement with the rental of the college-owned tent to the Baker campaign for a June 5 fundraiser at the home of UCA trustee Stanton.

“My understanding is that Dr. Stanton asked whether we lease tents,” Hardin said. “[UCA physical plant director] Larry Lawrence said we do that for everyone.”

Lawrence provided the Times with a copy of a $500 check to the college from the Baker campaign as payment for the tent. Though the check is undated, an internal check log shows that the college received it on July 22, more than six weeks after the fundraiser.

Lawrence said UCA employees did set-up for the fundraiser, but none was paid on UCA time. Rather, Baker cut a $300 check to the workers and they split it amongst themselves, Lawrence said.

Baker did not return a call for comment.

Arkansas Ethics Commission Director Graham Sloan, in response to a general query about the use of public property in campaign events, referred to  Arkansas Code 7-1-103, which states, “It shall be unlawful for any public servant…to use any office or room furnished at public expense to distribute…campaign materials unless such office or room is regularly used by members of the public for such purposes without regard to political affiliation. It shall further be unlawful for any public servant to use for campaign purposes any item of personal property provided with public funds."

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