A lesson learned from the UA fiasco?

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 118 views 

The ongoing saga at the Advancement Division of the state’s flagship University, while still mired in controversy, took a different turn this week.

Finally, someone on campus, Dr. John Watkins, an emeritus professor of law, spoke out in a newspaper opinion piece. Watkins wrote of needed changes in the state’s Freedom of Information Act. These suggested changes, Watkins said, could possibly in the future stop such deep, dark cloaked secrecy that seems to have mired the UA in a possible winless situation.

It seems even after an internal audit, a Legislative audit and countless written and broadcast news stories no one is sure what has gone on involving millions and millions of dollars donated for public higher education that were, well, squandered or misspent.

No money appears to have been stolen and none taken for personal gain. But still the money used to cover these deficits were not donated to cover deficits, but to enrich educational programs and student at the state’s largest public university.

So what exactly did happen? Two university employees, in direct control over the Advancement Division, have lost their jobs. Another individual, the UA’s former chief PR spokesman was subsequently fired.

There also is conflicting direct testimony – given under oath to an Arkansas Legislative committee – that someone it not telling the truth on a suggestion to destroy public records.

But,let’s leave all that aside for the Washington County Prosecuting Attorney, to whom those allegations have been directed for his findings. Let’s step back to Watkins’ suggestions on revisions to the FOIA.

A published legal expert on the Freedom of Information Act, Watkins knows the law better than most working journalists who write about the legal nuances of the legal statutes. That’s not a slam on working journalists. Often it is a journalist demanding the various city councils, quorum courts, school boards and other public agencies adhere to the law.

Newspapers and electronic media have always had to hire their own attorneys, at their own expense to fight most, if not all FOIA violations. A bevy of past Attorney Generals of Arkansas have always been “supportive of the FOIA laws” but rarely took after local, county, region or even state agencies, who violate the FOIA. All present and past AG’s have published handbooks and even help public seminars.

The generation of journalists who helped pass the state’s first Freedom of Information Act in the early 1970s, are sadly, largely now, retired or deceased. The legion of working journalists, today, it seems are just as enthusiastic to see that the FOIA laws are upheld. But in recent years they have been against adding additional public safeguards or asking for legislative for help to bring other such entities as the UA’s Foundation and the Razorback Foundation into the sunshine of public scrutiny.

Hopefully that has changed now.

Admittedly, getting the powerful Razorback Foundation’s book opened might be a real stretch.

But given the antics of the UA’s Advancement Division and the lack of total oversight from the UA Administration, now is the time to talk about, as Watkins suggested, amending Arkansas’ law to include something similar to Nevada’s FOIA.

It seems almost 20 years ago, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Foundation came under public scrutiny and fire for questionable use of discretionary funds. Something had to be done to bring this to the public, so the Freedom of Information in that state was extended to cover these “quasi-public/private” fundraising organizations that support public projects on the campus.

The private, nonprofit corporation that is the University of Arkansas Foundation holds funds raised by university employees and controlled by university administrators is immune from public view and public disclosure under the Arkansas FOIA.

The public, the legislature and the Prosecuting Attorney in Washington County, may never get to the bottom of what went on in this melt down of oversight and spending on the flagship campus. But now might be the time to draft legislation to expand the Arkansas freedom of information rules to cover these foundations that have an integral and high-profile link with public money.