The Democrat-Gazette reported further today on fired University of Arkansas spokesman John Diamond’s assertion that he fell out of favor for encouraging more openness about the budget mess in the university fund-raising arm that led to Brad Choate’s removal. Chancellor David Gearhart disputes Diamond, naturally.
A possibility: There’s potentially some accuracy in what both sides are saying.
The record is clear that Diamond favored continued engagement, explanation and document production in response to persistent requests for information from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the Choate situation.
The record also shows that the newspaper had been — and continues to be — provided a significant amount of information and staff time. Reading between the lines, you can see administrators who came to believe a witch hunt was in progress and that there was nothing more substantive to reveal.
The coming state audit might — might — reveal more information to help influence the sympathy meter in one direction or the other.
My own 40 years in Arkansas tends to give the benefit of the doubt to Diamond. The UA operates corporately though it is a public institution. It moves carefully — glacially might be a better word — on requests for sensitive information. It hides enormous parts of its financial mechanisms behind private foundations, both for the general benefit of the school and the special operation for athletics. When questioned about these entities, as I did Gearhart last week, they punt to the private entities. The private entities don’t explain anything to anybody though they and their millions wouldn’t exist but for the UA and without public employees’ coordination.
The university resents inquiries about its practices. It spent thousands of dollars to keep secret the process and promises that led up to the major gift to the University by the Walton family. We know now that part of the deal was selling the university’s independence to the Walton education agenda.
For all my own predispositions, I have to say that Diamond hasn’t yet pointed the way to specific documents that have been withheld. Instead, he’s demonstrated a decision by the university, perhaps bred out of exasperation, to end discussions with the newspaper. Legally, that’s a decision they are empowered to make. No public employee is required by law to talk to reporters. Diamond’s point was that it was a bad public relations decision. Yes.
Diamond’s most explosive suggestion is that the advancement division always — including in Gearhart’s days in charge — operated loosely from a budget point of view. Private foundation money was always available to cover budget needs. Choate, who hired Diamond, is something of a fall guy in such a scenario. The fact of the budget shortfall was real, though.
I do find laughable the notion that John Diamond was an intimidating and threatening figure who — according to Gearhart in today’s D-G story — dominated meetings. Chris Wyrick, a former jock who dwarfs Diamond and is the advancement division leader who fired Diamond, is particularly inapt to make such a charge. He is comfortable enough with locker room talk to make racial and religiously charged “jokes” to subordinates in the presence of many other subordinates. That is intimidating. Diamond, as one university insider remarked, is more of a “Mr. Peepers” character in demeanor.
And speaking of Wyrick: He made the rounds of media this week to take questions and also express regret for using the phrase Brother Honky and referring to Catholics’ fondness for fish on Friday. He meant no offense, but has learned a lesson, he said.
His call gave me an opportunity to pose a question about a theory that surfaced following Diamond’s dismissal. It is that Wyrick harbored animosity because of Diamond’s role in building support through a speech he helped write for the dismissal of Razorback football coach Bobby Petrino. Telephone records released at the time show, for example, that before Petrino was fired Wyick, then senior associate athletic director, seemed solidly on Petrino’s side. He wrote at one point:
“Times like this prove who your friends are—I am a Petrino guy and my support of you through this will be 100% unwavering. Feel Free to contact me if I can help or you need some insight”
Wyrick told me the remark needs to be considered in context. Petrino had not been fired then. Petrino’s relationship with a female subordinate had not been revealed. Wyrick said the nature of that relationship was unknown to him. He said he fully supported Long’s decision to fire Petrino and that he had subsequently praised Diamond for his work on the public relations campaign — for which Diamond won an award — to manage the situation. He insists he tried to establish a good relationship with Diamond but was unable to do so. (I should have written in the original text that the Wyrick text DID come after the police report revelation that Petrino had not been alone in his motorcyle wreck but had a comely young woman work on athletic fund-raising with him.)
As Gearhart said, Wyrick is entitled to build his own “team.” I can tell you there are a number of members of the current “team” who are uneasy about that.