Commentary: The appearance of impropriety

Karla Bowsher; Reporting by Karla Bowsher and James Shackelford

Karla BowsherControl over Florida’s 11 public universities traces back to a single political position — which requires no experience in higher ed.

The governor handpicks most of the officials who call the shots for schools like FAU. Those officials decide everything from the cost of dorm rooms to the salaries of university presidents.

At the state level, a 17-member Board of Governors, or “BOG,” rules our universities. The governor fills 14 of those spots with whomever he wants.

Locally, one 13-member Board of Trustees rules each university. The governor fills six of those spots, and the BOG fills five.

That means 84 percent of the people who run the state university system, or “SUS,” are directly or indirectly chosen by one political position. Combine that almost-monopoly with lax vetting and it’s no wonder the SUS looks like the governor’s crony club.

What vetting?

It turns out the government does a half-ass job of scrutinizing potential SUS officials.

A University Press investigation revealed that three FAU trustees seem to have lied on their applications (see “Pants on fire” sidebar below). Half appear to have bought their way in (see “Pay to play?” sidebar below). And half hide skeletons like federal lawsuits, bankruptcy filings and foreclosures in their closets.

Rick Scott
Gov. Rick Scott. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I got few answers from the Capitol.

Virginia Haworth in the governor’s Appointments Office told me Gov. Rick Scott picks SUS officials “based on their backgrounds.” But when I asked her to define “backgrounds,” she said that information “isn’t part of the public part of [their] process” and then directed me to the governor’s press people.

Press Secretary Lane Wright only gave me political-speak before hanging up. Gov. Scott, he said, looks for someone who “sincerely wants to do the job,” “is well qualified for the position,” and shares Scott’s “vision for improving education and creating jobs.”

Press people at the Board of Governors and the Senate president’s office told me they run Florida Department of Law Enforcement background checks on applicants, but that would only reveal criminal activity, not troubling financial histories.

Where it went wrong

The flaws in Florida’s state university system have been in and out of the news since circa 1990, when boards of trustees were created to rule universities locally. Before that, the SUS only had statewide rulers.

By expanding the system, lawmakers expanded the governor’s control, allowing him to appoint state and local leaders, building the crony club membership in the process.

Opponents of the expansion say it also gave too much control to the universities. Boards of trustees, they say, allow universities to put their best interests before those of the state.

One of those opponents is a former SUS chancellor, a position that monitors the Board of Governors. Charles B. Reed served as chancellor from 1986 to 1998, when he ditched it to become California’s SUS chancellor.

“There is no cohesive mission or commitment holding it together,” he said of our SUS in a November speech published by the Tampa Bay Times. “We are lacking a strong central plan or sense of purpose in higher education.”

He’s right. Check out the Board of Governors’ mission:

To mobilize resources and diverse constituencies to govern and advance the State University System of Florida.

Frank Brogan
Brogan

That’s a conveniently nebulous catch-all. It’s vague enough that trustees with no prior experience in higher ed could “advance” the SUS in their or their assigned university’s best interests without considering the SUS as a whole.

But Florida’s current chancellor, FAU alum Frank Brogan, sees an upside to the upset.

“The fact is, higher education is beginning to get the kind of attention that it has long deserved,” Brogan told the Tampa Bay Times in January. “It requires everybody to be on a very similar page, too. I think we’re getting there.”

I wonder how many more dubiously qualified friends of the governor will handle the purse strings of higher ed — and the future of Florida’s workforce — before we get there.


Pay to play?

Charlie Crist
Crist

The board has six members who were appointed by a governor. Half of them had previously donated money to the governor who appointed them.

  • Former Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Trustee Plymale in 2008. Plymale had donated $500 to Crist in October 2006, one month before he was elected governor.
  • Crist appointed Trustee Rubin in 2010. Rubin had donated $1,000 to Crist in 2009, when he was running for senator.
  • Crist appointed Trustee Feingold in 2010. Feingold had donated $500 to Crist in February 2002 and $500 in October 2002, one month before he was elected attorney general. One of Feingold’s companies had donated $500 in October 2006 and $4,800 in June 2009.

Sources: FLSenate.gov, FLBOG.edu, FAU.edu/BOT, Center for Responsive Politics (aka OpenSecrets.org), National Institute on Money in State Politics (aka FollowTheMoney.org)


Pants on fire

Anthony BarbarTtwo trustees appear to have lied on the applications or questionnaires they filled out — and submitted to state agencies — when they applied to join the board. Neither responded interview requests.

  • Trustee Anthony Barbar answered “No” when his first- [PDF p. 13, question 44] and second-term apps [PDF p. 21, question 44] asked, “Have any judgments been entered against you as a result of any civil or administrative proceedings?” But since 1990, multiple judgments of foreclosure, tax warrants and other debts have been issued against him or his companies.
  • Thomas Workman Jr.Trustee Thomas Workman Jr. answered “No” to the same question on his app [PDF p. 16, question 44]. But in the 1990s, multiple judgments of foreclosure and other debts were issued against him or his companies.
  • Workman wrote on his app [PDF p. 14, question 34] and questionnaire [PDF p. 4, question 24] that he received his certified public accountant license in 1973, but state records say he didn’t receive it till 1981.

Sources: Court documents, trustee applications and questionnaires


References Schmeferences

Before FAU’s trustees joined the board, they filled out an application. Once they were chosen for the position, they filled out a questionnaire for the Senate, which had to formally approve of them to make their positions official.

Like any other job applications, those forms ask potential trustees for references. Applicants may also opt to
have letters of recommendation written on their behalf.

Robert Stilley
Stilley

When I interviewed the chair of the Board of Trustees, Robert Stilley, he was skeptical of the bankruptcy filings, foreclosures, and other financial problems that I said lurked in his colleague’ pasts.

“There’s probably a logical explanation to what happened or they wouldn’t have been put on the board,” Stilley said. He went on to cite the trustees’ references, as if reference checks would have prevented financially troubling applicants from getting onto the board.

But the references that five of our current trustees provided are politicians they or their companies have donated money to.

  • Former Senator Durell Peaden wrote a letter about Trustee Anthony Barbar when he applied for his first term [PDF p. 22]. One of Barbar’s now-defunct companies had previously donated $500 to Peaden.
  • Trustee Jeffrey Feingold listed former Rep. Adam Hasner as a reference on his app [PDF p. 10, question 27] and questionnaire [PDF p. 5, question 27]. One of Feingold’s companies had previously donated to Hasner four times for a total of $2,000.
  • Feingold listed former Attorney General Bill McCollum as a reference on his app and questionnaire. One of Feingold’s companies had previously donated to McCollum twice for a total of $1,000.
  • Feingold listed Florida CFO Jeff Atwater as a reference on his app and questionnaire. Feingold had previously donated to Atwater three times for a total of $1,750.
  • Feingold listed former Gov. Charlie Crist as a reference on his app and questionnaire. Feingold had previously donated to Crist five times for a total of $6,300.
  • Trustee Sheridan Plymale, the only trustee on her third term, listed Florida State University System Chancellor (and former FAU president) Frank Brogan as a reference on her first- [PDF p. 15, question 27] and second-term questionnaires [PDF p. 10, question 27]. Plymale had previously donated $500 to Brogan.
  • Plymale listed Senator Joe Negron as a reference on her second- and third-term apps [PDF p. 5, question 27]. Plymale had previously donated to Negron three times for a total of $745.
  • Former Senator Ken Pruitt wrote a letter about Plymale when she applied for her third term [PDF p. 6]. Plymale had previously donated $200 to Pruitt.
  • Trustee Robert Stilley listed Senator Joe Negron as a reference on his first-term app [PDF p. 10, question 27]. Stilley later donated $1,000 to Negron.
  • Trustee Julius Teske listed Bernard Grall as a reference on his app [PDF p. 10, question 27] and questionnaire [PDF p. 5, question 27]. Teske had previously donated to former Florida House candidate Erin Grall twice for a total of $140. Erin is Bernard’s daughter.

Sources: Robert Stilley, trustee applications and questionnaires, Center for Responsive Politics (aka OpenSecrets.org), National Institute on Money in State Politics (aka FollowTheMoney.org)


Unequal representation

Before President Obama spoke at the Boca Raton campus last month, FAU President Mary Jane Saunders bragged about diversity.

“FAU now ranks as the most racially, ethnically and culturally diverse institution in Florida’s State University System,” she said, “with a 29,000-member student body that reflects the richly interwoven human tapestry of our state.”

But FAU’s Board of Trustees? Not so much.

Sources: Trustee questionnaires, FAU 2011-2012 Fact Book, FAU.edu/ Obama

Karla Bowsher photo by Christine Capozziello.
Charlie Crist photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Frank Brogan photo via FLBOG.edu.
Photos of Board of Trustee members courtesy of FAU Media Relations.


This article is part of an investigative series about FAU’s Board of Trustees members. To read the other articles in the series, visit upressonline.com/BOT.