Commentary: FAU officials endorse fraud and million-dollar debt, state officials silent

Karla Bowsher

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Karla Bowsher

The face of FAU is hiding from the press. A university spokesman is praising FAU officials who lied on state documents. And state education officials are mum.

It all started last month, when we published a package called Public distrust: a special investigation into FAU’s Board of Trustees. (They’re the 13 people who make FAU’s biggest decisions, from hiking tuition to creating the new medical school.)

We discovered that half the board’s members were hiding federal lawsuits, bankruptcy filings, foreclosures, or debt-related court orders in their pasts. Two of them lied about their legal and financial problems on the applications they submitted to the state of Florida when they applied to join FAU’s Board of Trustees — which breaks FAU’s own rules for students (Regulation 4.007[5][g]) and employees (Regulation 5.012[4][h]). Of course, several trustees also appear to have bought their way onto the board by donating to key politicians. (See “In bed together” sidebar below.)

After Public distrust was published, I spent a week and a half trying to find out what FAU had to say for itself and what state education officials planned to do about it. FAU stood by its Board of Trustees, aka the BOT, and the Capitol gave me the runaround.

FAU officials endorse fraud and million-dollar debt

Mary Jane Saunders

Silent Saunders

I requested interviews with six key Owls:

  • Mary Jane Saunders, FAU’s president
  • Robert “Bob” Stilley, chair of the Board of Trustees
  • William McDaniel, Faculty Senate president and the only faculty representative on the board
  • Robert Huffman, incoming student body president and the only student representative on the board
  • Chris Robé, president of FAU’s faculty union chapter
  • Ayden Maher, outgoing student body president and a former trustee

Only Robé would speak with me. Everyone else dodged my emails and voicemails for a week and a half — even President Saunders, who had never before ignored an interview request from our student newspaper.

So all I got from those six sources were two indirect statements — both supporting the BOT…

William McDaniel

Silent McDaniel

1) McDaniel made a two-sentence comment at the May 24 BOT meeting: “Some of you came under criticism lately in the small press,” he said of our investigation but went on to thank his fellow trustees for their service on the board.

Does that mean McDaniel — a finance professor — forgives them their legal and financial sins because they volunteer? Who knows. McDaniel was apparently too afraid of the small press to call or email me back.

2) Stilley, the BOT spokesman, only sent me an evasive statement via FAU’s press secretary:

“I have complete confidence in the processes that the Florida Board of Governors, the Office of the Governor, and the Florida Senate use when selecting and confirming appointments to the state universities’ boards of trustees. It has been an honor to work with the outstanding men and women who comprise the Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees. These volunteers spend countless hours on behalf of the University for no reward other than helping FAU and its students, faculty, staff, and surrounding communities. FAU’s spectacular transformation over the past decade is directly attributable to the skills, insight, experience, and effort that the Trustees have brought to bear in leading the University. I am proud to call them my friends and colleagues.”

Robert Stilley

Stilley

Does that mean FAU’s all-Republican trustees are legit simply because Republican Robert Stilley says so? And Florida’s Republican-dominated Board of Governors, Office of the Governor, and Senate are legit simply because Robert Stilley says so? Only Spokesman Stilley knows – and he’s not speaking

State officials silent

FAU’s most troubling trustees by far are Thomas Workman Jr., Anthony Barbar, and Paul Tanner — all alumni. (Read all about their transgressions in my Who’s in charge here? article.)

They got on the BOT because the Board of Governors (which oversees Florida’s public universities) selected them and the Senate approved of them. So I requested interviews with three key officials:

  • Frank Brogan, chancellor of Florida’s State University System (which means he oversees the Board of Governors)
  • Dean Colson, chair of the Board of Governors
  • Lyndsey Cruley, a press secretary for the Senate president

All three ignored my repeated calls and emails requesting interviews. They couldn’t even give me the decency of a “no comment”…

Frank Brogan

Silent Brogan

1) Frank Brogan is the former president of FAU and an FAU alum. So FAU’s student newspaper should have no problem getting five minutes of his time, right? Not if his press secretary has anything to do with it.

I made about half a dozen calls and wrote half a dozen emails over the course of a week and a half in an attempt to schedule an interview with Chancellor Brogan. Each of the three different assistants who answered told me that press secretary Kelly Layman is the sole human capable of scheduling his interviews. Of course, Layman was on vacation, in meetings, or “working off-site” every time I called.

The assistants suggested I email her, but Layman ignored repeated emails for a week and a half. When I finally got an answer from her, it was 42 minutes before my deadline — and she was only writing to further stonewall me:

“I still feel it is essential to talk through some of the issues at hand before any further interviews/communications occur with the my [sic] Board staff colleagues, the Chancellor, or the Board Chair.”

If you’re wondering what “the issues at hand” are, join the club. Layman refused to explain.

Dean Colson

Silent Colson

But wait, it gets better: Public records show that Brogan’s press secretary gets paid 120,000 taxpayer dollars a year to dodge the press.

2) Dean Colson’s secretary told me he was out of town. When he got back, she told me Colson didn’t have five minutes in his schedule to talk to me. In other words, someone who chose to serve on Florida’s highest-ranking higher education board doesn’t have five minutes for a student reporter.

3) Lyndsey Cruley dodged me altogether, never taking my calls, returning my calls, or responding to my emails. The first time I called her, the guy who answered said she was available. But after I identified myself, he said she had just stepped out.

When I called Cruley again on Friday at 11:04 a.m., I got her office’s general voicemail message — which said the office was closed and to call back during business hours: “8 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.” Huh.

‘The travesty’

After all that, I must agree with professor Chris Robé, president of the FAU chapter of United Faculty of Florida.

He wasn’t surprised by the silence or cronyism. “You’re not going to get much from the administration on this,” he said. “Rick Scott appointed three of these trustees and they have a direct line to them.”

He wasn’t up in arms about the double standard that is allowing Trustees Thomas Workman Jr. and Anthony Barbar to get away with fraudulent behavior that FAU employees could be punished for. “To an extent, we’re well aware of double standards,” Robé said.

He wasn’t even that concerned with the trustees’ bankruptcies, foreclosures, and other four- to eight-figure financial transgressions. “To me, it is a bigger issue,” he said.

Robé is pissed about what the silence, cronyism, double standards, and financial transgressions have done to Florida’s higher education system.

“I don’t hear much about serving the public at the [Board of Trustees] meetings I go to,” he said. Robé thinks the trustees see students as money and faculty as money generators.

“The majority of the board are venture capitalists or have no connection to universities at all. What the hell?” he said. “This is about them having no knowledge of the public good.”

Besides professor McDaniel, only three of FAU’s 13 trustees have a degree or work experience in education.

“What’s lost is the mission of the public university,” Robé said. “That’s the travesty.”


In bed together

All 13 members of FAU’s Board of Trustees are Republicans. A few appear to have bought their way onto the board by donating to the governors who selected them for the board, or by donating to the politicians they used as references when they applied to join the board.

But the cronyism doesn’t stop there.

A few trustees have donated to Chancellor Frank Brogan, who oversees the Board of Governors (which also gets to appoint people to university boards of trustees). A few have donated to key senators, including members of the Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections — which screens people appointed to university boards of trustees.

No wonder FAU’s Board of Trustees and state education officials are protecting one another with silence.

  • Trustee Paul Tanner donated $500 to Chancellor Frank Brogan (R-FL) in 2002, when he was running for re-election as lieutenant governor.
  • Trustee Jeffrey Feingold donated to the chancellor three times in 1998 and 2002 for a total of $1,500.
  • Trustee Sherry Plymale donated $500 to the chancellor in 1998.
  • Trustee Anthony Barbar’s real estate company Barbar & Associates, LLC, donated $500 to Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-FL) in 2011.
  • Feingold’s dental insurance company Managed Care of North America Inc. donated $500 to the Senate president in 2009.
  • Feingold donated $500 to the Senate president in 2008.
  • Feingold donated $500 to Senator Steve Oelrich (R-FL), the chair of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, in 2009.
  • Feingold’s company donated $500 to Senator Oelrich in 2009.
  • Feingold’s company donated $500 to Senator Thad Altman (R-FL), a member of the Higher Education Committee, in 2009.
  • Feingold’s company donated to Senator John Thrasher (R-FL), a member of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections, in 2010.
  • Feingold’s company donated $500 to Senator David Simmons (R-FL), a member of the Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections, in 2009.
  • Feingold’s company donated $500 to Senator Don Gaetz (R-FL), a member of the Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections, in 2009.

In addition to the politicians they’ve helped to finance, most of FAU’s trustees have their own political connections to Tallahassee.

  • Trustee Jeffrey Feingold has chaired the Republican Party of Florida’s Jewish Leadership Council since 2007.
  • Trustee Angela Graham-West is married to Congressman Allen West (R-FL).
  • Trustee Robert Stilley is a former member of the Republican Party of Florida’s State Executive Committee.
  • Stilley is a past president of the Martin County Republican Party’s Council of 100.
  • Trustee Sherry Plymale worked as chief-of-staff of Florida’s Department of Education from 1994 to 1998, when now-Chancellor Frank Brogan was the education commissioner.
  • Plymale worked as a consultant for the Executive Office of the Governor in 2001, when Jeb Bush (R-FL) was governor and Brogan was lieutenant governor.
  • Plymale represented Florida in the 1992 Electoral College. She cast her vote for Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush., the father of Jeb Bush.
  • Trustee Robert Rubin was a delegate to the Florida State Republican Convention in 1987.
  • Trustee Paul Tanner worked as an aide to then-Senator Van Poole (R-FL) from 1979 to 1982.

Sources: Center for Responsive Politics (aka OpenSecrets.org), National Institute on Money in State Politics (aka FollowTheMoney.org), trustee applications and questionnaires, prior interviews with trustees, The New York Times, FAU.edu, Archives.gov, RPOF.org

James Shackelford contributed to the reporting in this article.

Karla Bowsher photo by Charles Pratt.
Original Saunders photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations.
Dean Colson photo via FLBOG.edu.
Frank Brogan photo via FLBOG.edu.
Robert Stilley photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations.