By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
A few weeks ago, the Alabama House Judiciary Committee dropped a report detailing a bunch of awful things former Gov. Robert Bentley did.
There were tales of affairs, of intimidation, of misusing power, of misusing State resources, of acting above the law and of flaunting his overreach of power.
But that report didn’t include one thing: the worst thing Robert Bentley ever did.
Because the worst thing Bentley ever did had nothing to do with sex or campaign finance issues.
It was that time he tried to destroy a State university – Alabama State University.
It was announced on Tuesday that the long-running State investigation into alleged fraud at ASU had been closed. A Grand Jury had declined to return a single indictment in the nearly five-year investigation that cost taxpayers more than a million dollars.
The investigation was, by any measure, a colossal failure and significant waste of State time and resources.
It was also politics at its absolute worst, race-baiting to an embarrassing degree and spiteful revenge that should have no place in our State government.
For those unfamiliar, allow me to give you a not-so-brief recap.
In November 2012, then-ASU president Joseph Silver, on the job for about three months, began claiming that he was being railroaded out of town by longtime ASU powers because he had uncovered potential fraud. That fraud, Silver said cryptically, was in the form of contracts that the university wasn’t receiving a proper return on.
The situation blew up.
In rode Bentley and his legal team to get to the bottom of it.
According to a number of sources from both ASU and within the governor’s office, Bentley owed a debt to the AEA and Joe Reed, the longtime head of the AEA’s legal department. Reed had been a fixture at ASU until decades-old feuds saw him pushed out of power and the university altogether in the late 2000s. (Trustees even removed Reed’s name from the Acadome, the school’s basketball arena.)
Sources at ASU said that when Silver began having issues with trustees and longtime powers at ASU, he went to Reed for help. And when it became clear that Silver wouldn’t survive as president, those sources said it was Reed who facilitated the meeting between Silver and Bentley.
Silver would eventually make a deal and bow out. Bentley forced a forensic audit on ASU to supposedly get to the bottom of Silver’s allegations.
To do the forensic audit, Bentley contracted with a small Birmingham firm named Forensic Strategic Solutions (FSS). Within a very short period of time, FSS ran into a number of road blocks.
First of all, ASU officials decided they weren’t going to allow FSS to come in and start interrogating employees and tying up daily operations with multiple requests for documents. So, it contracted with former Federal Judge U.W. Clemon, who, to the chagrin of FSS and the governor’s office, established his own system for dispersing documents and handling employee interviews.
While that was troubling, FSS’ biggest issue was something no one saw coming: There was no obvious fraud.
Within just a few weeks, it was readily apparent that while ASU had its share of accounting snafus and goofy screw-ups – like all universities and large companies – there didn’t seem to be any real fraud. No mysteriously missing money. No ridiculous payouts to friends or family. No odd contracts.
But that didn’t cause the governor or his team to back away. Instead, Bentley fought for more control and inserted himself into the search for ASU’s next president.
Believing the process was rigged to allow State Sen. Quinton Ross to land the job, Bentley at one point demanded that the search process be stopped and restarted. When trustees refused, he tried to sabotage the search by revealing the identities of the candidates for the job.
At one of the oddest, most contentious university board meetings in history, several members of the Governor’s legal staff began passing out lists that identified candidates for the job. Several trustees, angered by the move, began throwing the papers at the Governor’s staff.
But the move pushed public perception that several within the university were controlling the search in the hopes of landing a candidate that would continue to cover up their misdeeds. And that public outcry helped give the job to inexperienced Gwendolyn Boyd, who didn’t stray from Bentley’s wishes.
But there was still a problem: the board.
It was controlled by a faction that was unfriendly to Bentley and Boyd. They were blocking a number of her changes and looking over her shoulder.
Bentley’s auditors began digging for anything on the two men who controlled the board: chairman Elton Dean, the Montgomery County Commission chairman, and vice-chairman Judge Marvin Wiggins.
The result, after more than 10 months of digging, was a “preliminary audit report” from FSS that might just be the most embarrassing “audit report” ever produced.
It contained, among other things, completely unsubstantiated claims that Dean had a girlfriend who received contract work and that ASU had more than $2.5 million in “questionable contracts.” The list of contracts was never provided. But we know now that they weren’t too terribly questionable.
The report also contained allegations that Wiggins had a conflict of interest because his wife and family operated a summer camp on the ASU campus. That the camp had operated for several years previously and that ASU didn’t really pay for it didn’t seem to matter.
There were similar allegations against Dean, whose daughter’s company was awarded roughly $8,000 in contracts over three years for inflatables to be used outside of football games. Basically, they had contracts to supply bouncy houses.
Those absurd allegations of conflicts of interest and the school’s mounting financial issues were enough for ASU’s accrediting agency to place it on warning status, threatening its vital accreditation. Shortly thereafter, with public pressure mounting, Dean stepped down as trustee chairman and Wiggins was forced off the board by Bentley.
At that point, things should have stopped.
Bentley had the control he sought. The changes he wanted had been made. The investigations should have moved towards completion.
But that’s not what happened.
The man who pushed, at his mistress’ suggestion, to close driver’s license offices in majority-black counties couldn’t let go the defiance from the leaders of a black university. The insults stung. The attempts to undermine Bentley politically would not be forgiven.
And so, the Governor of Alabama allowed a State school to be ripped apart brick by brick.
When the credit downgrades rocked the university’s finances, there was no additional state funding to help offset the problems.
When SACS issued its warning, there were no calls from the Governor’s office to explain things had changed, that board leadership was different, that the financial situation would be handled. Not a peep.
In its 2014 operating budget, ASU trimmed nearly $26 million away. The next year, another $4 million vanished. The next, another $8 million.
The bad PR from the phony scandals cost ASU more than 1,500 students.
And all the while, ASU was “under investigation.” An investigation that didn’t seriously question a single witness in more than a year. An investigation of a university in which investigators haven’t set foot on the campus to investigate anything in more than two years and didn’t request a single document in more than three years.
ASU is, I guess, easy to ridicule for its myriad issues over the years. But on its worst day, the school serves as an educational lifeline to a community that’s underserved in this state. It has given more hope and prosperity to the poverty-stricken than you can imagine. And it has served as a shining beacon for civil rights for decades.
What Robert Bentley and many others have done to ASU through this five-year ordeal is unforgivable.
Hopefully, it’s survivable.