The University of Alabama System Office has decided to answer no further questions about what work political columnist Steve Flowers is being paid $96,000 a year to perform there, leaving unanswered matters as simple as whether he was ever issued a university email, and as complex as whether its own rules allow the shifting of pay between System and university budgets.
“We have provided you with a substantial amount of information and have nothing further to add,” Director of System Communications Lynn Cole wrote Saturday in response to more questions prompted by Lagniappe’s investigation into what Flowers does to justify his salary.
Flowers, who claims his weekly column appears in more than 60 papers across the state and reaches more than 400,000 readers, was first hired in 2015 by the University of Alabama making $28,000 annually. Since his job moved to the System Office in 2019, though, he’s been paid $96,000 a year, along with benefits and insurance, but has almost no work product during that time the office overseen by Chancellor Finis St. John could produce.
As Lagniappe reported last week, Flowers does not appear in the System Office directory, has no office or phone number, and shows up in no web searches as an employee. Public payroll records serve as the only way of determining he is being paid by the System, and Flowers has never made that clear in his column, even in a column last year lauding St. John’s selection as chancellor and brilliance as a leader.
Calls to the System Office demonstrate confusion even among employees, as prior to Lagniappe asking about Flowers’ status, a receptionist said he did not work there. The next day, after a list of questions was sent to St. John and the System Office, a receptionist claimed Flowers was out of his office and offered to take a message when a reporter called and asked for him. Cole has since said Flowers has no office.
Flowers’ own description of what he does for his nearly six-figure salary created further confusion. He claimed U.S. Senator Richard Shelby urged St. John to hire him to help create a political history center, which has thus far remained a secretive endeavor. He also said he’s in the middle of writing Shelby’s biography, which would be published and owned by the University of Alabama Press. But Shelby’s office denied the senator asked St. John to hire Flowers, said there had only been very preliminary talks about a political history center, and also said Shelby is not working on a biography with Flowers.
Following the publication of last week’s story, Cole sent another statement from the System offering a bit more detail about what it claims Flowers does. She said he was hired in 2015 after answering an employment listing for a “producer – reporter” at the University of Alabama making $28,000 a year, and in the ensuing six years, has seen his duties — and pay — expand dramatically.
“Steve Flowers has been employed within the UA System since his hiring at the University of Alabama in May 2015 under prior leadership. Mr. Flowers has served in numerous roles throughout his tenure and has been assigned additional responsibilities and duties over the years,” Cole wrote. “His initial role with UA-affiliated broadcast stations expanded in 2017 to include helping the University of Alabama with public relations and outreach initiatives. Since formally transferring to the System Office in 2019 as a public relations specialist with a concentration in public affairs, Mr. Flowers’ duties were elevated to include developing cross-platform, System-owned content and helping guide strategy and discussions surrounding a new initiative that would provide opportunities for scholarly research of Alabama’s political history.”
As an example of the System-owned content produced by Flowers, Cole sent a link to a two-minute interview he conducted with State Senator Bobby Singleton in a production called “Leading Alabama.” While Flowers does not identify himself during the interview as working with the System, the System brand is displayed on a red background at the end of the segment, after the interview is over. Cole refused to say when the segment was produced or provide a link to other episodes of “Leading Alabama.”
A search of university-owned television station WVUA’s website turned up just two episodes of “Leading Alabama,” one from April 29, 2019 and another from May 14, 2019. The System has also refused to provide any cross-platform content produced by Flowers over the past year, but insists he is appearing on university-owned media.
“Mr. Flowers has consistently appeared on-air with UA-affiliated broadcast stations,” Cole wrote last week.
Flowers officially moved to the UA System payroll in June 2019 — two months after St. John was elevated from interim chancellor to chancellor — having his pay bumped 38 percent to $96,000 annually. That’s also roughly the time frame in which he appears to have stopped appearing regularly on WVUA-TV. Flowers’ regular political commentaries on Alabama Public Radio (APR) also ended about two years ago, Elizabeth Brock, executive director of the Center for Public Television & Radio, confirmed.
That doesn’t mean Flowers has given up doing radio and TV for a public university, though. Flowers is currently producing weekly radio and television programs run on Troy University’s broadcast stations, only Troy isn’t paying him anything to do it, according to a Troy spokesman. Flowers was an employee of Troy from 2008 to 2014, working in the broadcast and digital network division, where he produced television and radio programs and taught a class on Southern politics. At that time, he was paid between $38,000 and $43,000 a year, according to Troy University Senior Director of Communications Matt Clower.
“Troy University continues to air Flowers’ radio and television programs. The radio program is not produced in our studio; however, the television program is recorded at Troy’s Montgomery Campus. Flowers receives no financial compensation for these programs and is no longer employed by Troy University in any capacity,” Clower said. “The radio show airs on Saturday afternoons on Troy Public Radio, and the television program airs on Thursdays (with a repeat on Friday) on the Troy TrojanVision cable channel.”
A search of Troy’s payroll database verified Flowers has received no pay from Troy since 2014.
As for the work said to occupy the rest of Flowers’ time as an employee of the System Office, Cole was unable to provide an example of his work product as a public relations specialist or offer specifics in terms of what he does to help facilitate the creation of a political history center and when that takes place. System statements last week labeled the political center a “potential” entity, but Cole now says there has been an ongoing effort to bring it to life.
“I understand you would like additional information about this UA System-driven initiative; however, I cannot share any public details until our Board of Trustees considers and formally approves any such initiative. I can share that the UA System is enthusiastic about this initiative and that frequent, regular strategic planning meetings have been occurring over the past several months,” Cole wrote.
Asked two weeks ago how many hours a week he worked on planning the political center, Flowers was unable to describe any kind of set schedule or offer an estimate, but argued his work on Shelby’s biography and his radio and TV appearances were more than sufficient to justify his high salary, regardless.
When Flowers first began working at the University of Alabama, he was making $28,000 a year. He received a $630 a year raise the following September, according UA records. But in September 2017, his pay jumped to a rate of $69,059, more than a 140 percent increase. He received another raise in October 2018, moving his rate to $69,555. And then in June 2019, he received a 38 percent increase to $96,000 annually when he moved to the System Office’s payroll.
Lagniappe has asked if Flowers’ job with the System was advertised and if there was a standard search conducted before he was hired. Their statement from last week infers that Flowers’ original position for UA was advertised, but none of his subsequent job changes have been, including his move to the System Office. In that case, it appears a new $96,000-a-year position was carved out of the System’s budget to start paying him from that budget.
“In March 2015, Mr. Flowers responded to a job posting for a producer – reporter position with the University of Alabama, which was advertised on their website for 14 days, well exceeding UA’s guideline of seven days,” Cole wrote. “In May 2015, Mr. Flowers was hired for the position. In 2017, he received supplemental responsibilities, and in turn, his salary was adjusted. In 2019, this position was transferred to the University of Alabama System, consistent with HR practice, and Mr. Flowers’ salary was adjusted to align with the increased responsibilities. Throughout his tenure, he has received additional minor pay increases consistent with the overall entity salary budget process.”
The UA job listings website actually says positions must be advertised a minimum of seven days, and a recent check found many listings set to close nearly 40 days from when they were posted.
Among the follow-up questions the Chancellor’s Office has refused to answer were what “supplemental responsibilities” Flowers took on in 2017 and whether it is standard practice to move employees from a university budget to the System budget without a formal job search. The University of Alabama System Office oversees universities in Tuscaloosa, Huntsville and Birmingham, and all four entities have their own budgets.
Comparing the list of employees listed on the System Office website with payroll records at open.ua.edu shows several System employees are not being paid from the System budget. That includes the UA System’s Senior Vice Chancellor of External Affairs Clay Ryan and Cole. Their names did not show up in searches of the university’s other payrolls. Lagniappe was unable to search payroll for the UAB Hospital System. The System Office refused to divulge from which budget Ryan, Cole and three others listed as System employees are paid.
Four System Office vice presidents are listed in the directory, and among the three whose salaries are publicly listed as coming from the System Office budget, the lowest paid makes $373,000 annually. The highest paid makes over $560,000 a year. Given his position, it is a fair assumption Ryan’s salary would fall in that range, if not higher.
Former UA System Chancellor Ray Hayes demurred when asked whether it was standard practice to move an employee to the System without treating it like a new position. Hayes was chancellor when Flowers was hired, but said he was unfamiliar with him. Hayes retired in July 2018, but returned as chancellor emeritus and received more than $1.2 million in payroll and travel expenses from September 2018 through September 2020, according to System Office payroll records.
Asked if the various university budgets and the System’s budget were treated separately and why high-ranking employees like Ryan would be paid from somewhere other than the System Office budget, Hayes said he was uncomfortable answering.
“It’s not really appropriate for me to talk about that,” Hayes said.
Prior to cutting off communication with Lagniappe, Cole also provided a statement from Alabama Board of Trustees President Pro Tem Stan Starnes in answer to several specific questions sent to the board about payrolls for the System Office coming from various budgets and how many people were interviewed for the chancellor’s position when St. John was hired.
“We endeavor to act with integrity and appropriate transparency in all matters. This particularly has been evidenced throughout the last year, as we have faced and effectively responded to incredibly challenging times amidst unprecedented circumstances,” Starnes said. “The entire UA System has prevailed with remarkable success thanks to the strong, unified leadership between our Board of Trustees, the UA System Office, the UAB Health System and each of our campuses.”
Rob Holbert is co-publisher of Lagniappe Weekly newspaper in Mobile. Email him at email@example.com
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