I spoke this morning with state Rep. John Walker of Little Rock, who abstained from the vote last Friday in Legislative Audit that ultimately culminated in silencing of Brad Choate, the ousted University of Arkansas Advancement Division chief.
Walker said he didn’t vote because the silencing of Choate was “pre-ordained.”
Was that a product of pressure from the University of Arkansas? “I have absolutely no doubt about that, ” Walker said. He added: “There are sacred cows in the state that you cannot touch. One of them is [UA] Fayetteville.”
Walker hastened to add that I shouldn’t see his remarks as totally opposed to the university or the outcome of the prosecutor’s investigation that preceded Friday’s vote. A Fayetteville prosecutor concluded no charges were merited in handling of a variety of university financial and FOI matters.
Waker said Legislative Audit had too great a tendency to elevate poor practices to the criminal level, with frequent prosecutorial referrals that rarely produce criminal charges. He said more attention should be given to the intent of those who commit the acts identified in audits. Such things as inaccurate math or coding of accounts need to be identified and corrected, he said, but intent matters.
The decision to prevent Choate from speaking deprived the committee of hearing all sides about intent of those involved at UA, particularly management by UA Chancellor David Gearhart.
“I had a number of questions to raise but was precluded from raising them,” Walker said. He said he accepted, and wasn’t surprised, by the decision not to prosecute. Invariably, institutions are cleared in such cases, he said. But here, he said, “In this situation nobody could inquire to the extent of whether bad motivation was the cause of the termination of [Information chief John] Diamond and Choate. …. In this situation, we saw actual intent to conceal information. That’s an ethical issue. It’s of interest to the public.”
Walker said the presence Friday of multiple members of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees was evidence of the influence the UA brought to the matter, along with the sole speaking role of Fayetteville graduate and UA Trustee John Goodson, who promised future good practices by the university. Walker saw it as an “orchestrated” effort to put the matter to rest.
He contrasted the shutdown of the UA Fayetteville review with an earlier Legislative Audit review of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the historically black college of which Walker is a graduate, and its former chancellor Lawrence Davis. Davis resigned in 2012 after an audit critical of a variety of financial issues.
“Lawrence Davis was crucified, ” Walker said. “He was forced to resign. No criminal proceedings were initiated against him. But he was killed in the press and his whole reputation as an educator was destroyed. Nobody representing the UA Board of Trustees came to his defense.”
He said UAF dominates representation on the University Board. Dr. Benjamin Broughton is the only UAPB graduate on the 10-member board.
Fayetteville officials undoubtedly would bridle at having their actions compared with those found in the UAPB audit. I tend to remain where I started: I’m willing to accept the finding of an absence of evidence to file criminal charges, but wholly convinced that Gearhart and his many minions prefer corporate-style (secret) management to unstinting public accountability. John Diamond says, among others, that Gearhart once angrily rejected an expansive plan he proposed along with university lawyers for responding systematically and thoroughly to voluminous FOI requests. That’s not necessarily a crime, but it is evidence that a spirit of openness is lacking.
As long as UAF shields tens of millions in university spending from full inspection in the locked drawers of the University of Arkansas and Razorback foundations and plays word games with reporters seeking information, any defense to the contrary will ring hollow.
Walker said he was most interested in the split in the Republican Party in Friday’s 21-13 vote to accept the audit, thus cutting off testimony, and the decision by several who’d earlier wanted to hear from Choate to side with putting the matter to bed. He said he was also interested in the fact that most Democrats joined with Republicans in rare bipartisan agreement to that end. The room was full of UA backers, he noted.
For another day, I’ll relate some interesting back stories Walker told of help he’s received from UA-Fayetteville quarters over the years in some famous matters, including when a stalwart of the Razorback Foundation, lawyer E.J. Ball, defended Walker in a dispute between Walker and federal Judge Elsijane Trimble Roy. Walker also revealed that he’d formed a continuing friendly relationship with Lou Holtz, the former Hog football coach who Walker sued to prevent from keeping Hog football players accused of rape out of the 1978 Orange Bowl. Walker said, too, that help from Fayetteville quarters had helped him in his successful defense of two players at their subsequent trial the next year.
A small Arkansas world note: My wife, then an assistant attorney general, defended Holtz in the case Walker filed and was prepared to bring the woman who made the allegation into federal court had the players not decided to drop the suit Dec. 30.