by Max Brantley
Federal Judge James Moody sentenced Lu Hardin, the former president of the University of Central Arkansas, to five years of probation but no jail time this morning for his guilty plea to wire fraud and money laundering.
Leniency was based on a number of factors, including that Hardin might be a future cooperating witness if a continuing criminal investigation produces additional prosecutions.
The sentence was five years' probation on each of two counts, to run concurrently. He was also sentenced to 200 hours of community service every year for five years and ordered to continue in Gamblers Anonymous. There was no fine.
The judge said probation was within the law. He said he was persuaded this was an "aberration" in terms of behavior by Hardin and inconsistent with his history. He said he didn't think he was likely to commit another crime. He said he was influenced by letters written in Hardin's behalf.
Judge Moody said he did consider the crimes to be serious offenses and acknowledged some might think probation too lenient. But he said probation and community service were restrictive and would give Hardin the opportunity to educate others about gambling addiction. (Hardin had told the court he first tried slot machines, at the urging of his wife, on vacation, and that he loved it from the first but it rapidly became addictive.) He noted Hardin had lost his job and law license and said Hardin was remorseful.
The judge also mentioned that the U.S. attorney's office had filed a motion for reduction in sentence because Hardin had been assisting in another investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris said after today's hearing that the investigation had been going on for a "fair amount of time," and that Hardin had agreed to be a witness when the investigation was complete. He gave no further comment on the matter and the office, pressed for more details, reiterated that there'd be no further comment. Harris declined several opportunities to take exception to the sentence.
When Hardin left court, he gave no comment to assembled reporters. His son, Scott, told reporters they were "excited" by events and thought it a "positive outcome."
Hardin spoke before sentencing. "I stand before you humbled beyond words and remorseful," he said. He seemed to defend his actions in part, by noting the $300,000 bonus at the root of the charge had been approved years before by the UCA Board of Trustees. He said he'd been asked by the Board what it could do to get him to stay and he said accelerate the payment. He said he thought the money would come from private, rather than public funds. "I stand before you very sorry. This behavior was an aberration but that doesn't justify anything," he said in closing. He apologized to family, friends and UCA.
Hardin pleaded guilty in March to a scheme in which he used a note he'd written — but which he represented as having been written by other UCA officials — to justify early payment of a $300,000 bonus package. After the circumstances were uncovered, Hardin paid the money back. He ultimately was bought out of his contract at UCA. It developed later that Hardin was pressing for cash because he had been financially devastated by debts from high-stakes slot machine gambling.
Hardin's attorney, Chuck Banks, argued for lenient treatment for Hardin because he'd accepted responsbility, made restitution, had a career filled with good deeds, had suffered already from loss of jobs and embarrassment and had a gambling addiction. He filed a pleading packed with details of Hardin's life and submitted many testimonials from friends and family. Before the judge this morning, Banks said the crime was an "aberration" by Hardin, a word the judge echoed in sentencing. Banks mentioned that Hardin had lost sight in his right eye from cancer, a consideration in potential places of incarceration. He asked for a sentence that was "sufficient," but not "greater than necessary."
The charges Hardin faced carry maximum penalties of 10 years for money laundering and 20 years for wire fraud, plus fines. But under federal sentencing guidelines — given Hardin's lack of a record, restitution, guilty plea and reductions for cooperation in an ongoing investigation — he faced a recommended sentence of 9 to 12 months, according to the judge.
My thoughts immediately after sentencing: 1) If you get in trouble, hire Chuck Banks. 2) I had mixed emotions on this, as I wrote last week. 3) I hope Lu Hardin will consider a full confessional with a good reporter at some point about his time at UCA, marred by more than this one "aberration," as his cooperation in an ongoing investigation seems to attest. Debra Hale Shelton of the Democrat-Gazette would be a good choice. Or, of course, any of the fine folks at the Arkansas Times.
— Gerard Matthews contributed the on-scene reporting.
PS — In answer to a question: Federal law prohibits penalizing people for bad acts by taking money from retirement benefits. State legislators have proposed imposing such penalties from time to time, but the laws have failed in part because of the federal law. Hardin has state retirement benefits as a former legislator and Higher Education Department director. He also participated in a college retirement plan while a faculty member at Arkansas Tech.
UPDATE: The formal sentencing document reflects that Hardid did have to pay a standard $200 fee assessed in criminal cases. He's also prohibited from possessing a firearm.