University of Arkansas gang can't shoot straight 

A University of Arkansas employee put it simply: "Why can't they tell the truth?"

He referred to the growing evidence of a UA corporate culture that prefers secrecy to disclosure, just as the fired John Diamond, the university's former chief spokesman, has alleged.

A prosecutor in Fayetteville is reviewing the discrepancy between accounts by Diamond and Chancellor David Gearhart on handling of documents related to the red-ink drenched Advancement Division. Diamond says relevant documents were shredded. Gearhart denies this.

Circumstantial evidence supports Diamond. Records were shredded. Records of payment authorizations that the UA Advancement Division should possess are gone. Shredding began after financial problems in the division surfaced. Shredding stopped for a time in November — perhaps on the sound advice of an administrator now departed — and then resumed. The prosecutor presumably has talked with people who can say which documents were shredded. The UA is falling back, in part, on the excuse that the University of Arkansas Foundation has parallel records. It's a poor excuse. The UA Foundation claims it's not open to the public. Legislative auditors have indicated they didn't find all they needed there.

Arkansas law on record retention is sufficiently porous that no law may have been broken even if potentially insightful or embarrassing records were destroyed. But remember the Lou Holtz Do Right Rule? It applies in university administration as well as football. The UA has taken a beating in public appearances (save from an outlier excuse-maker in the press who's chummy with Gearhart) and could be in for more.

Secrecy is a pattern at UA. When I asked the UA weeks ago about a tip that the FBI had been questioning UA officials about the Advancement Division mess, I originally got a categorical denial. Later, I got a callback explaining, in a roundabout way, that an FBI agent might indeed be at work, but under the auspices of the local prosecutor. Why not get it right the first time?

Then there was the recent news that Athletic Director Jeff Long was a candidate for a job at the University of Texas. Long issued a misleading statement on a Sunday evening, via Twitter, that he was not in contact with Texas. The next day, an FOI request by the Arkansas Times revealed the whole truth. Six days earlier, Chancellor Gearhart had given Long a $100,000 bonus and a $200,000 pay raise in return for his spurning any overtures from Texas. If, indeed, the overtures ever existed.

Would the public have known about the pay raise without FOI requests? Why didn't the UA volunteer news of the contractual upgrade (the second in two years for Long after a putative overture from Stanford a year ago) before it hit the newspapers?

Shredding documents during a financial audit is a bad thing, even if undertaken innocently as housekeeping at the outset. A resumption of shredding amid controversy looks worse. It will be worse still if the record shows — as several insist it will — that financial records were among those shredded. An incomplete answer about my law enforcement question wasn't encouraging. Evading the truth about the athletic director was not just disingenuous but dumb, given that the record had to eventually come out.

Football tickets, skybox access, chancellor's party invites and the huge clout of key tycoons — not to mention the simple charm of abundant old school ties — have always paid big dividends for the UA in legislative halls. But new powers in the term-limited, Republican majority legislature don't seem so easily impressed. Combine that new skepticism with dishonesty and you have a formula for long-term fallout for the UA well beyond whatever the prosecutor concludes.


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