Lu Hardin was cut a huge break Monday by federal Judge Jim Moody. He gave Hardin probation for the fraudulent scheme by which he got University of Central Arkansas trustees to hurry up a $300,000 bonus so he could pay gambling debts at Tunica.
Hardin's defense attorney Chuck Banks called Hardin's offense an "aberration" in a life of good intentions and works. Hardin, in professing his remorse, humility and sorrow, also called it an aberration. The judge, too, said he was convinced that it was an aberration.
That leaves me with one question:
How does "aberration" square with the fact that Hardin got a sentence reduction in part because he's viewed as a valuable potential federal witness in an ongoing FBI investigation of other criminal activity?
Hardin's going to have to average four hours of community service per week for five years. That's an extended commitment. But it does little to soothe the predictable outcry that Hardin — by virtue of his professional stature, his political connections, something — got more favorable treatment than the average criminal defendant.
Typical comment on our Arkansas Blog:
"So the next time a bank robber faces Judge Moody, he can argue, 'I'm really sorry I got caught, and I gave back the money when I got caught with it in my hands, and I did it because I really needed the money to support my bad habits.' "
I guess all bank robbers, at some point, were first offenders. But there was that in Hardin's favor. Also, strictly speaking, Hardin only got an advance on money he was eventually due. He didn't rob anyone.
His crime was in cooking up a bogus note to support his case, a fiction that probably wasn't necessary given his favored status with the UCA Board of Trustees. By then, it had already overlooked numerous problems in the accelerated growth of the Hardin years at UCA.
It was, to borrow from gambling, all about doubling down and betting on the come. Hardin pumped enrollment numbers, pumped spending in athletics, pumped spending in marketing. The higher education community universally thought the numbers didn't add up and they were right. Hardin hoped for rising state support to eventually cover his bets — or else that he'd be a governor or U.S. senator and gone before UCA busted out.
As I wrote last week, there's much more to be known about the Hardin era. Politicians and the powerful got favors from the Hardin administration at UCA. Money was spent in dubious ways — in excess of salary caps and in ways that looked remarkably similar to kickbacks.
A full accounting of those years is in order. If others are criminally culpable, let them, too, appear before Judge Moody. Let them also talk of good resumes, addictions and, if they can, disabilities such as Hardin's, his vision impaired in one eye by cancer. (As one who was born with one eye, I wasn't so moved by Banks on this defense point.) I also thought Hardin hit a sour note when he mentioned his devoted wife Mary had introduced him to slot machines. Should I note in seeking mercy for my sinful eating that my mother gave me my first Snickers bar?
Other potential criminal defendants certainly should not forget that magic word "aberration."
However, I'm betting any future defendants produced by this investigation won't be as lucky as Hardin. A probationary sentence will prove an "aberration," most likely.
It would be more than a little ironic if the kingpin of the enterprise turns out to be the only one who escaped prison.