The Razorback Foundation fiction of independence | Arkansas Blog

The Razorback Foundation fiction of independence


SHADOW TREASURER: Scott Varady has the keys to records on UA athletic expenditures. But he isn't talking.
  • SHADOW TREASURER: Scott Varady has the keys to records on UA athletic expenditures. But he isn't talking.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this morning on a University of Arkansas response to an open records request that showed regular communications between UA officials and the Razorback Foundation, which supports UA athletics. Duh.

The article adds some current detail to the 30-year story I told yesterday about the use of the private foundation to throw secrecy around pay, perks and emoluments (think private jet and six-figure retirement income for a former athletic director) in the athletic kingdom.

A key question wasn't answered: Will the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sue to unlock Foundation secrets? Many, including me, have long contended the legal precedents are there to open the books.  For now, it's good the D-G has finally roused itself to challenge the status quo, once a no-no for those hoping to chronicle the Razorbacks. Perhaps it's because the newspaper was behind the curve in the sudden upheaval that led to the firing of Athletic Director Jeff Long, Football Coach Bret Bielema and a raft of assistant coaches, leaving a multi-million-dollar severance bill to be paid by the foundation. The newspaper also blew the cost of the severance deal for Bielema because it didn't have access to all the relevant documents covering his employment. Now it's on the hunt. The only way to pry them out of Razorback Foundation boss Scott Varady's grip is a lawsuit. A Little Rock lawyer, Chris Corbitt, has given every indication he might beat the D-G to the courthouse. I wish the Arkansas Times could afford it, but we got bruised once tilting against the legal team the UA is willing to assemble to protect secrets pertaining to wealthy donors and we are less able to muster such resources today. The D-G, too, is facing harsh financial realities of the changing of world of publishing as evidenced by dramatic staff reductions and consolidation of statewide operations at the chain's newspapers.

This is simple stripped of legal technicalities. An honest public institution wouldn't participate in the fiction that the Razorback Foundation is an independent organization beyond control of the university. Public employees — the chancellor and athletic director — strike pay deals with other public employees, including the athletic director and various coaches, that are guaranteed by payments from the Razorback Foundation. The foundation is able to deliver because it has the franchise to extract premium payments for UA ticket sales along with contributions from UA athletic supporters. All understand the Foundation WILL deliver, otherwise nobody would take the jobs. The $120 million athletic department confers daily with the Foundation on everything from ticket sales to building projects to use of a $4 million aircraft. The foundation is the department's shadow treasury. It should function in sunlight.

I welcome the D-G's spotlight. It, by the way, could find in the files it inherited from the late Arkansas Gazette that newspaper's pursuit of these records in the 1980s, a pursuit that brought advertising pressure from powerful Razorback supporters interested in keeping Razorback Foundation affairs secret. The now-defunct newspaper's success then in opening records led to the move of the Foundation off campus. But the new offices and nominally independent board are only a disguise. The Foundation doesn't exist or operate without a UA Athletic Department. And vice versa.

Chancellor Steinmetz and President Bobbitt, tear down that wall of secrecy.

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