The University of Audit

opinion by Maylon Rice

Editor’s note: Maylon Rice is a former newspaper reporter, columnist and editor at several newspapers over the past 40 years. He ran, unsuccessfully for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. A native of Warren, Rice lives in Fayetteville.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.

The long, anxiously awaited discussion of the audit of the University of Arkansas’ flagship campus’ Advancement division sputtered to a halt Friday morning by a quickly made procedural vote of the Legislative Joint Audit Committee.

The announcement on Thursday by the Washington County Prosecutor’s office on the eve before the UA’s Advancement former employees Brad Choate and Joy Sharp were to appear in Little Rock was that no criminal charges would be forthcoming. That announcement, for all intents and purposes, sealed the deal.

But still, some quick, effective and well planned Legislative rule play made the drama just as great for fellow legislators and some folks who wanted to have their day in front of the committee, and at least one other former UA employee who felt his voice was not being heard.

The reaction ranged from the expected “let’s move on, we’ve made mistakes,” by a board member, to “shock and disbelief” by a fired UA employee. At the meeting, only one person, Texarkana attorney John Goodson, a UA Board member, told the solons the board will address any issues still lingering on the matter. Goodson, a powerfully political force and Gov. Mike Beebe appointee, said the UA Board members knew the Legislators wanted this issue addressed and corrected.

“We have heard you loud and clear,” Goodson reassured the committee. “[The Board] has accepted every single recommendation made by Roger Norman.”

Norman is the lead auditor of the Joint Audit Committee and a fiscal expert on state government.

Goodson’s brief statement gave rise to Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, who made a motion to accept the audit as reviewed, which would effectively end the legislative conversation on the entire matter.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, seconded the motion.

Here is where those unfamiliar with legislative procedure and rules, fail to keep up. Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, and committee co-chairs State Sen. Bryan King, R-Berryville and State Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, argued against the motion, but it passed on a roll call vote by almost a 2-to-1 margin, observers present at the meeting noted.

A roll call is seldom used at Joint Audit. A roll call was taken and the tally was 21-13. Voting for the discussion to end were 10 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Those voting to continue the discussion were 12 Republicans and one Democrat.

There was a move to still allow the two employees at the center of the controversy – Choate and Sharp to testify. Basically one employee, Choate, was ready to testify and Sharp was apparently not so quick to delve into details of the financial morass that once was the UA’s Advancement Division.

Hammer still wanted the two to talk. But that’s not legislative protocol. When Hammer asked if the two could speak, Sample, who is a relatively quiet member of the body, objected. The committee at odds what step to take next, did the best thing it could do – they adjourned.

Chesterfield, who has served quietly in the legislature in the House and the Senate, seems to be a voice of reason on this entire matter.

“Our role is not a quasi-judicial body, and that’s what we’ve become,” she said. “We don’t have to hear both sides of a case. ...We’re not in court. Our only role was to determine whether the money was spent properly or not. It was turned over to the prosecuting attorney. Once it goes to them, we’re really out of it. But we’ve chosen to come back in and deal with things that I don’t think are within our purview.”

Is the matter over, maybe, maybe not?

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We all now await the outcome of the UA Board’s assessment of the audit and their remedy for this long running controversy. As the UA Student Body President said in a statement last week, “there are better things going on the flagship campus” than review this long since passed budgetary melt down.

And only the board can assess how to fix the problem of such a budget meltdown from reoccurring in the future. The UA Board at some time in the future will, no doubt, address these issues. Maybe then a clue will be seen by the public about who knew what, when and who was ultimately responsible.

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