Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland of Conway has asked the State Police to investigate the contract between the University of Central Arkansas and food service supplier Aramark.
State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said an agent had been assigned to the case. Sadler said Hiland’s request was a broad one arising from “unanswered questions” about Aramark’s dealings with UCA.
I reached Hiland later. “We’re not saying there’s been criminal activity,” he said. “We’ve got sufficient information to ask them to come in.” He declined to say what that “sufficient information” might be, though the outlines of the matter are well-enough known to provide clues.
Aramark has supplied services at UCA for years. Its arrangements exploded into headlines this year with news that it had said it would contribute $700,000 to a project to renovate and expand the president’s home. When first announced, the money was described as a gift. Subsequently, it was learned that Aramark had agreed to provide the money as part of a contract extension, a fact university officials in the know failed to disclose to the Board of Trustees. This led to the resignation of President Allen Meadors and buyout of his contract for about $500,000. Further reporting by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has indicated that university employees suggested the contribution to Aramark.
The UCA internal audit office is also reviewing the Aramark deal. But questions already have been raised about whether that’s an independent agency if it reports to the Board of Trustees.
Hiland said there’s a threshold at which a “prosecutor has a responsbility to make that call [for an investigation.] Due diligence requires that we take that next step.”
He added that “the public would probably feel better about an outside law enforcement entity reviewing the matter.”
I’ve sought a comment from Tom Courtway, who’s interim president of UCA. Though Meadors has left, others remain at UCA who served as intermediaries on the dealings between UCA and Aramark, including Vice President Diane Newton, who apparently initiated the contribution discussion. Board chairman Scott Roussel also knew, but said his failure to disclose that knowledge was an honest mistake and he’s rejected suggestions that he resign from the Board.
Aramark has defended the payment as similar to capital investments it has made previously at UCA and at other institutions with which it has contracts. Other university leaders in Arkansas, notably including UA Chancellor David Gearhart, have defended no-bid vendor contracts with front money paid for a variety of purposes.
UPDATE: Courtway left a meeting long enough to call me back to say he could not comment on the investigation. I remarked we’d done this dance once before, when he stepped in to clean up after Lu Hardin’s departure. I was able to work in a question about his confidence in Diane Newton, given what’s been revealed of her role in the matter. “I have confidence in her. She’s still functioning in her job as vice president and doing a good job for me,” he said. “The investigation is ongoing and I’m going to let it run its course.”