Columns » Max Brantley

Lu Hardin's punishing walk

The former UCA head pleads to wire fraud and money laundering.

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Lu Hardin made a punishing walk in front of photographers into federal court Monday morning with his wife and son. Minutes later, he pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering in a scheme to accelerate payment of a $300,000 bonus voted him by the University of Central Arkansas Board of Trustees.

The rest of the story comes when he is sentenced. Hardin and his attorney, Chuck Banks, both seemed to hold out hope this week that he'll escape jail time for felonies that could carry up to 30 years in prison.

He has no prior record. He made restitution long ago of money received fraudulently. His case file will bulge eventually with testimonials to Hardin's past good works, his acceptance of responsibility, the pain he's suffered.

By sentencing, too, full details should be revealed of the reported gambling addiction that drove him into personal debt. Sources say he was desperate for money to meet the demands from Mississippi casinos for payment on the markers he'd signed. Hardin has not yet talked publicly about it, but these sources have told me of spotting him frequently in the Tunica casinos, sometimes wearing sunglasses. Friends tell me he favored the expensive slot machines, up to $100 a pull. The "whales" who play such machines are catered to by casinos, sometimes with private rooms for their sport, always with many attendants on hand.

The jingling slot was a financial death vise. Hardin had to deplete his retirement fund to make payments. He drew on credit lines at several banks. The full extent of his losses isn't known, but they must have been huge. He retains a state pension, but likely not much else.

It is a sad story for someone whose charm was legendary. But, at the bar of justice, he should receive no more consideration than the crackhead who stole a Social Security check to feed a damaging habit. A person in a position of public trust might even deserve a harder look.

I don't know. But I do think the court will have to think of Lu Hardin as more than the victim of a vice who ultimately caused no public monetary loss in the specific case.

As president of UCA, he forged two documents to get the money. He instructed an employee to destroy the evidence. He drew the money from illegal public sources. He was not charged, despite an ongoing investigation, in a scheme in which he seems to have participated in a way to peel off money from a school advertising contract to illegally fatten the paycheck of the UCA football coach.

There's much more in this considered life. Hardin favored students with political connections with comparatively plush campus housing. He managed the campus so poorly he dug a financial hole from which it is not yet fully extricated. He spent lavishly on advertising meant to build his own brand for a run for governor as much as it built the UCA brand. He pumped enrollment by any means, including a concurrent enrollment deal with high schools that other universities had long questioned.

Critics were seen as merely jealous. When the financial problems surfaced, Hardin's supporters tended to dismiss them as pains from unparalleled go-go growth. Hardin was a risk-taker, no doubt, and not always in a bad way. He supported college for undocumented immigrants with good high school records. He provided the seed money to save the Oxford American.

Few people are one-dimensional. There will be much to consider when Lu Hardin's sentence is pronounced by a federal judge. A lot of it will be good. A lot of it won't.

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