Columns » Max Brantley

Liars and cheats

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The year ends with a couple of issues that demand a little attention before the Times takes a week off from normal publication.

LIES AND THE UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS: Evidence piles up against Chancellor David Gearhart on his resistance to public accountability in the Advancement Division financial scandal and firing of university spokesman John Diamond.

Financial records WERE shredded. The excuse by UA officials now is that they weren't records specifically requested by anyone at the moment under the FOI and that duplicates (if inaccessible to the public in a private foundation) existed.

But much worse news for Gearhart has emerged. Though a Fayetteville prosecutor said he found no evidence of criminal actions in the financial mess, his files show at least three eyewitnesses who say that Gearhart angrily told staff at a Jan. 14 meeting to "get rid" of budget documents they'd brought to the meeting. Yet another employee further buttressed Diamond's account that he and Gearhart had differences on accountability. Diamond wanted more disclosure, Gearhart wanted less.

Despite a fierce UA lobbying effort to short-circuit them, conservative Republican legislators have found a way to put the rest of the story — fired Advancement boss Brad Choate — before a legislative committee in January. Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley has been asked to investigate conflicts between what witnesses have said and Gearhart's sworn and unequivocal legislative testimony. Even if unindicted, Gearhart is indelibly tarred by his actions. That Gearhart continues to enjoy the backing of the suits who worship his fund-raising acumen among the Waltons and others tell you all you need to know about academic integrity at Arkansas's flagship university.

Even this week, the UA PR apparatus was parsing Gearhart's past words and deeds to shape an alibi for the chancellor. But it is not OK if Gearhart only ordered destruction of records not actively being sought under the FOI. Not if he told legislators under oath he'd never ordered destruction of any document, period.

Gearhart has much to be proud of as leader of the U of A. But not this. He's taken criticism personally. He's resisted coming clean. It's not too late to declare an open door policy, to apologize and to put mistakes of the heart down to simple embarrassment that his friend Brad Choate went astray on his watch in managing the fund-raising operation. But the existence of a potential criminal probe makes it harder for Gearhart to speak freely. That could create more contradictory statements. Of those, the record is already full.

LT. GOV. MARK DARR MUST RESIGN: This case is even simpler. Though he's developed a euphemistic way of putting it, Darr has nonetheless now admitted to both Legislative Audit and the state Ethics Commission that he spent public tax dollars and campaign dollars, $44,000 or more, on personal expenses. This sounds suspiciously like something known as a crime.

Sen. Paul Bookout resigned fairly promptly over identical misdeeds — after loud shrieks from Republicans when they became known — and faces state and federal criminal investigation. The only difference between the Darr and Bookout cases are in the details of how they spent ill-gotten loot.

Darr has apologized. He's said he'll pay the money back, if he can find any. No matter. He must resign. Prosecutor Larry Jegley and the FBI should do their duty. That the Republican Party has yet to produce a single member or official critical of Darr (Party Chair Doyle Webb offered lamely that Darr had apologized) tells you everything you need to know about GOP integrity.

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