When he led the charge to spend $4.3 million renovating the former Bryce Superintendent’s House as a special events space, University of Alabama Chancellor Finis St. John envisioned a place to entertain and house political officials and others deemed financially important to the universities’ goals, internal documents show.
And, as current and former employees have told Lagniappe for months, hosting such connected people for football games is a big part of his overall plan. St. John’s memos reveal his plan was to create a place where the wealthy, well-connected and elected can be feted and, among other things, participate in the festivities surrounding football Saturdays in Tuscaloosa.
“We also proposed using the Superintendent’s House to host key business, educational and political figures important to System interests (not limited to UA interests, and not limited strictly to advancement goals). Examples of these would be:
“• Selwyn [Vickers] and key national members of his board of visitors
“• Mayors of important Alabama cities
“• Important business or political figures from the home state of visiting teams
“• Strategically selected groups related to UAH, UAB or UABHS
“• Alabama business or political leaders important to ongoing System interests.
“Trustees would be involved, and we would have these guests attend the pre-game at the Mansion and sit in the President’s Box,” St. John wrote in a June 15, 2021 memo to Trustees Stan Starnes and Karen Brooks.
However, St. John’s plan to essentially create an Airbnb for the wealthy and influential may hit a snag when it comes to state laws that restrict what elected officials can be given. State law prohibits offering or giving public officials or employees “anything for the purpose of corruptly influencing official action, regardless of whether or not the thing solicited or received is a thing of value.” Section 36-25-1 of the Alabama State Code describes a “thing of value” as: “a. Any gift, benefit, favor, service, gratuity, tickets or passes to an entertainment, social or sporting event offered only to public officials, unsecured loan, other than those loans made in the ordinary course of business, reward, promise of future employment, or honoraria.”
The state also limits hospitality for public officials to $250 a day. It is not clear what value would be placed on a bedroom suite in Tuscaloosa on a football weekend. In the past, both Auburn University and the University of Alabama have faced scrutiny for giving state legislators free Iron Bowl tickets, when those legislators are responsible for deciding how many hundreds of millions of dollars the universities will receive from the Education Trust Fund.
Several internal memos, as well as some financial documents, were provided by System Office General Counsel and Vice Chancellor Sid Trant late last week in response to open records requests. For several months, Lagniappe has asked the System Office to explain what types of events would be hosted at the House, but those requests went unfulfilled until last week. Twelve days ago, Trant wrote to explain that security concerns were the reason St. John’s office had refused to provide drawings of the House, and also indicated that the reason they have not provided information about the House usage is because such plans had not been written down.
“[State law] does not compel the state or a state instrumentality to create a record to answer a request, nor answer interrogatories seeking general information where responsive documents subject to the Open Records Act do not exist,” he wrote.
However, the documents provided last week appear to show there indeed were written memos sent between St. John, senior staff and members of the UA Board of Trustees concerning plans for the House. Lagniappe first filed a public records request for such documents on Sept. 23, 2021. In supplying them last week, Trant wrote, “And, although never properly requested, Document 3 is a compilation of internal documents showing the planned uses for the facility, and procedures for use by the UAS community.” He has not explained how the documents were improperly requested.
Employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity this past summer said there was a full-court press to complete the facility — often referred to as “The Super House” or “The Trustee Playhouse” by employees — by the start of football season. A memorandum of understanding signed Jan. 22 of last year seems to support those claims, as it says, “The Project shall be completed and the Property fully available for UAS’s possession, use and enjoyment no later than Aug. 30, 2021.” While crews reportedly worked around the clock as that deadline approached, the House was not completed until later in the semester and does not appear to have been used for any pregame parties this season.
In a Nov. 4, 2020, memo, St. John identified the need for such a facility as stemming from the decision to turn the two Pinehurst mansions into places for members of the UA Board of Trustees to stay. One of the Pinehurst houses was used as a residence for the chancellor, but former Chancellor Bob Witt decided not to live there and that house and another were extensively renovated to provide permanent lodging for trustees. St. John currently receives a $75,000-a-year housing stipend.
“Since the transformation of the Pinehurst properties from a Chancellor’s residence, there is no appropriate facility to host and entertain functions and guests of the System and the Board. During trustee meetings and game weekends, the Pinehurst properties are used to host trustees,” he wrote.
Current and former employees familiar with the situation have said trustees maintain their suites in Pinehurst year-round, and St. John’s memo is official confirmation the Pinehurst mansions are indeed being used to routinely house members of the UA Board.
The System Office has said there have never been any official plans for the Superintendent’s House prior to the UA Board voting to turn it into a special events space. In 2015, though, an article from the University of Alabama “News Center” said it was slated to be used for graduate studies. While it has never been confirmed that the House was repurposed from becoming an academic facility to serve its new mission of hosting dignitaries and politicians, a document created in December 2021detailing some renovation expenditures curiously bears a heading that reads “Graduate Hall.”
That document lists more than $99,000 spent on furniture for the house, including nearly $40,000 worth of window treatments. The furniture costs were $21,000 over budget.
Another of St. John’s stated plans for the House is to help find his replacement when the time comes.
“A facility of this kind will be an attractive benefit when the Board recruits chancellors in the future,” St. John wrote in a Nov. 20, 2020, memo.
St. John’s own selection as chancellor does not appear to have involved any other candidates either interviewing or coming to visit the campus, as the 17-year UA Board of Trustees member was elevated from interim to full-time status by his former colleagues.
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