Columns » Max Brantley

76 Trombones

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Every time I consider the case of Lu Hardin, to be sentenced next week in a fraud scheme he cooked up while president of University of Central Arkansas, I think of "The Music Man."

You know the story — a handsome con man named Harold Hill sells a trusting community on a big purchase of band instruments.

This week, it occurred to me that Hardin needed a little less Harold Hill and a little more Ernie Passailaigue. Ernie P., who tendered his resignation under Lottery Commission pressure this week as director of the state lottery, needed a bit more Harold Hill.

Lu Hardin didn't lack for salesmanship. He made friends in politics, press and the community. When his management deficiencies began to surface, his friends did not want to think the worst. Why should the UCA Board have doubted him when he floated a story that a larger university was after him? How could you deny a man who tooted such an appealing horn?

Passailaigue? The South Carolina carpetbagger made the kind of money Lu Hardin dreamed of. He never established a residence here. He bunked in a rental with a deputy and he made it home to South Carolina as often as possible. He avoided the press and built no political support.

Passailaigue didn't market the lottery any better than he marketed himself. He used limited cookie-cutter ads from South Carolina. He mined the rich vein of poor and underprivileged for scratch-off ticket dollars, but did poor promotion of the multistate games. If the lottery had a face, it was that of a condescending carpetbagger in a bowtie who sneered at advice from dumbass Arkies. Too bad for Ernie P., the lottery commission grew to include some dumbasses with legislative skill and an accounting degree. They had questions, including about the deal with a major lottery vendor that appears to have earned the vendor an extra $100 million against arrangements used in other states. That's 20,000 scholarships.

Ernie P. might have lasted longer if he'd had some of Hardin's PR skills. Hardin might have lasted longer if he'd met his financial targets and balanced the UCA books, as Ernie P. did.

Ernie P. is gone, but what's to be done about Lu Hardin? In a lively weekend discussion on the Arkansas Blog, a few supported leniency for Hardin, who's lost his jobs, his law license and virtually all his earthly assets. But most favored prison time. They said a public official should set a higher standard.

I just don't know. I doubt much purpose would be served — beyond expenditure of public money — by imprisonment of Lu Hardin. But I'm sensitive to the argument that lawyers in suits don't automatically deserve lighter treatment — on account of their great embarrassment — than food stamp thieves and crack heads.

I wish the system allowed something like this: lenience in return for demonstrably full disclosure of the details of Hardin's go-go UCA years. The lucky scholarship, housing and campus perk recipients. The special deal with the football coach and summer camp operators. The deals with local politicians. The inflated enrollment. An accounting of which university employees knew of these deals. But Hardin isn't in court for all of that. He only must answer for a note forged in desperation to justify a bonus to cover his high-dollar slot machine debts. Trustees happily paid the bonus to ensure Lu Hardin would still lead the UCA band. Had he written the note over his own signature, they probably still would have paid up.

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