Several weeks back, a former Hendrix College mate of Tom Courtway, interim president of the University of Central Arkansas, told me he'd heard Courtway would be named director of the new state lottery.
Courtway has no experience running a lottery. He's an amiable and widely liked lawyer and former legislator. He was general counsel at UCA before the troubles drove Lu Hardin from the presidency. He was, it so happens, the campus' chief legal officer during a time when the Board of Trustees was holding illegal meetings and cutting deals of dubious legality to bonus Hardin. He was on campus during a time of improper deals to fatten the pay of the football coach and evade state limits on athletic spending. And lots more funny business.
But back to the lottery. When Courtway was asked about my hot tip, he said he knew nothing about the lottery.
This was never about lottery knowledge. It is about politics.
Courtway is friendly with House Speaker Robbie Wills and Senate President Pro Tem Bob Johnson, who together appointed two-thirds of the members of the commission that will hire the director. And, sure enough, once the commission began taking applications, who turned one in but Tom Courtway? It would seem he's now heard about the state lottery and its $350,000 director's job.
I don't suggest, by the way, that Courtway has culpability, direct or indirect, for the sins at UCA during the Hardin years. Maybe he never previously reviewed that curious marketing contract he recently cancelled. Maybe he was somewhere else while the university was running roughshod over FOI and fiscal laws. Maybe he really did believe the proper legal course was to protect the names of those students who received discretionary presidential scholarships and was not merely shielding favored UCA insiders. But a good ol' boy legal counsel who was fiddling around elsewhere while a college burned doesn't seem the perfect candidate to pre-empt a meaningful search for the head of a multimillion-dollar gambling enterprise. Particularly since he has no lottery experience.
Courtway's emergence is not the only curiosity in the lottery startup. The commission will need an office. Did it advertise for proposals? Not so far. Instead, Chairman Ray Thornton deputized a commissioner to fetch George Hopkins, another good-ol-boy former senator, to pitch the commission on renting some of his Teacher Retirement System space.
A PR man, Craig Douglass, who has done media work for Wills and who was PR counsel several years ago for the effort championed by Sen. Johnson to wreck Lake Maumelle watershed management, turned up as a pro bono lottery advisor and potential interim staffer.
Chairman Thornton is kin to the owners of the Stephens financial empire, whose interest in lottery matters could range from a local ad agency that wants to do lottery marketing to financial deposits to real estate. (The Stephenses have some downtown property newly cleared for any building the state might wish to construct.)
Speculation is rampant about friends of top legislators who'll land lottery jobs.
As yet, this is all just smoke. It is too soon to conclude that the lottery will be a legislative puppet or that connections to powerful legislators will be more important than competency and experience when jobs are awarded. But it is not too soon to give some thought to what's causing all the smoke.